Is High School Math “Useless Nonsense”?

You’re in the merge lanes exiting from Route 28 onto 7 West on your way back to Ashburn. Progress toward home is being measured in fits and starts of inches and sighs; engines and tempers verge on overheating. You’ve already merged left toward Route 7’s lanes when a car zooms by you on your right, shooting up the empty lane to nose into the long line of waiting cars at the last possible moment. Another goes by. Then another. You reconsider your decision to be considerate. The exhaust enclouded line suddenly seems endless, and you ask yourself, “Should I ‘cheat’ too and get home sooner?”

Well, should you? Is it worth the dirty looks and gestures from the “considerate” drivers to be one of the line budgers? Or do you become one of the “vigilantes” who punish the “sidezoomers” by blocking them? So many options to choose from, so many decisions to make! What’s a “non-math” person to do?

The World is Divided Between “Math People” and “Non-Math People,” Right?

The student newspaper at my high school published last month a point-counterpoint type article debating the value of high school math.  “So even if you dislike math in high school, you might end up needing it [in college],” one author states in “The Glories of Math! Or Not …” The piece’s co-author concludes after surveying his parents at the dinner table and teachers in school that high school math is “useless nonsense,” and that no one ever uses “complex formulas and problem solving methods … in real life situations.”
Not ever.

But do the writer’s parents never, ever, really never use the problem-solving skills they were exposed to in their algebra, geometry, and calculus classes a quarter-century ago? Maybe they use them in their everyday activities and aren’t even aware of their secret powers. Is there a possibility that his mom does indeed get into a situation maybe just once a day, mind you where she weighs the merits of two options and chooses between them? It might be something as mundane as choosing a cell phone plan, or it could be something that affects the whole family, like deciding which job offer to accept. Maybe sometimes there are more than two options involved, like four or five, in various combinations (or permutations, as we call them in algebra). Maybe sometimes these situations come up more than once a day. Just maybe.

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