Why We Study Mathematics
The other day one of my grade 7/8 students asked me why she had to learn algebra given she had no intention of becoming a mathematician or an engineer. The question caught me off guard and truthfully my initial response was ‘why wouldn’t you’? In my mind, not wanting to learn algebra is a bit like not enjoying ice cream dipped in chocolate but then I have, on many occasions, come across this strange aversion, verging on loathing, of all things mathematical. So why then do we inflict on those who have no natural inclination, the ardours of learning algebra? I will set aside immediately the rather obvious and unsatisfactory argument that grades 7 and 8 is much too early for anyone to be declaring a natural inclination for or against any subject. While there is some truth in it, there is more truth that even at that young age it is clear that some students are not going to go on to specialize in a quantitative profession. Besides, a strictly utilitarian understanding of the teaching of mathematics, one that sees the usefulness only for those select few who go on to a profession in the sciences, is, in my view, to sell the teaching of mathematics short. Dorothy Sayers, in her wonderful article “The Tools of Learning”, suggests that the object of education is to teach a child to think and that the subject matter is almost irrelevant. While I hesitate to disagree even mildly with anything that such an august defender of Classical education has to say, I would suggest that each subject allows for different types of training of the mind. Otherwise why not allow the student to pick and choose her subjects as her natural inclination would lead her? Mathematics in particular, if taught right, trains the mind in ways that few other subjects can. It is a natural friend to logic, forcing students to think through a sequence of steps in a coherent fashion. It provides the mind with a chance to abstract from a particular word problem in order to find a generalizeable method for solving a whole set of problems. It forces an exacting attention to detail as inattention easily leads to a faulty answer. (If I had a dime for every time I told a student to re-read the question….) And it allows the students to look for an order that is naturally pleasing to them as children of an orderly Father. The very fact that we can describe with such accuracy the natural world around us while using equations that though seemingly complicated to us are nonetheless amenable to mathematical manipulation (whereas the vast majority of equations are not) is a powerful indication, in my mind, of a Creator who delights in order. Is that not reason enough to persevere with algebra? Jonathan Patrick is a parent at St. Timothy's with four of his five children currently enrolled in
grades 1-8. He has been substitute teaching math to the upper grades this past term. Dr. Patrick is an associate professor of Mathematics at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.