Why is math important? It’s a question many students, trudging through the arduous task of learning math, have asked themselves. Upon further thought, one would dismiss the question as shortsighted, but when one adds profession into the mix, the question becomes “Why is math important to me if I want to study English?” The question changes into a somewhat more valid concern and demands answers for people who are seriously considering professions that appear to be outside the sphere of math.
I had a chance to sit down and interview four Jesuit math teachers, and I’ve found three answers to this question, all valid in completely unique ways.
1-The Lessons You Learn Through Math
People learn valuable lessons that they use everyday through learning and practicing math. Mrs. Anne Blackford, Co-Chair of the Jesuit Mathematics Department, explains, “We use math everyday.” Even if one is not “crunching numbers, one uses the logical processes required in mathematical operations and problem solving daily.” Logical reasoning, not busy work, is really the core of mathematics.
Part of the negative attitude towards math comes from past experiences and perceptions. People, coming up through middle school, tend to think of math as pointless busy work. Ms. Patricia Watson, who teaches Geometry and Calculus, says, “Math is not really about numbers. It’s about problem solving.” Through math, people learn to identify problems and formulate plans to arrive at a solution.
One should never become discouraged by their performance in a math course. According to Ms. Watson, “People have bad experiences in math sometimes when they don’t understand a general concept,” but that shouldn’t deter them from trying again and again. She says, “Do not underestimate the amount of logical thinking and reasoning capabilities that you’ve gotten from your math class, even if you’ve gotten C’s.” Every step is a step in the right direction.
2-Life is Dynamic
Another practical reason to fully engage in math comes from the ever-changing nature of life itself. Although you might believe that you are destined for a career in English, each year, millions of college students change their majors or go to college with undeclared majors. Department Co-Chair Mr. Andrew Dondis echoes this fact by saying that just because “you want to do something right now, doesn’t necessarily mean that is exactly what you’re going to do.” Ms. Watson can also testify to this experience because “I didn’t choose math until college, until I decided I wanted to teach.”
You should always be prepared to encounter some form of math in most fields. Mr. Dondis stresses the importance of being prepared because “you never know when what discipline you go to in the future will require some part of it. It may not be intense algebra, calculus, or trig. It still is nice to have that background to have something to fall back on” just in case you decide to switch your major. In short, keep your options open and always be prepared for change.
But is there something more profound to education in mathematics? Can studying math somehow make a person more virtuous? Commenting on this, algebra and geometry teacher Mr. Stephen Pitts, S.J. says, “The Greeks had the idea that education makes you a better human being, not just that you learn what you need to do to get a job and make money.” After my interview with Mr. Pitts, I read portions of Plato’s works that explore this concept in order to gain a better understanding some examples Mr. Pitts cited .
In one of Plato’s five dialogues, “Meno,” Plato explores this idea through Socrates’ experience with teaching geometry to a slave boy. Meno, a Greek aristocrat, asks Socrates, “Can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?” Socrates responds by telling Meno of one of his slave boys. Socrates sat down with this slave, who only spoke Greek and had no education, and asked him questions about geometry. The boy responds well and knows many principles of geometry, even though he had no prior education. Mr. Pitts explains that “what’s happening is not so much that Socrates is teaching the boy something from the outside.” The idea is that “Socrates is working with the boy to help him remember things that he knew all along.”
Through his lessons to the slave boy, Socrates begins to explain that knowledge, which is present in all human beings, can be drawn out. He explains this discovery to Meno and says that the boy must have learned at a time when he was not a human being. I believe that what Socrates tried to explain is the universal nature of knowledge that can be unlocked through questioning. We recognize this process as education. Socrates relates this discover to virtue by saying that virtue can also be drawn out; thus, one can say that Socrates proposed an early understanding of natural law and other ideas we use today. Even though Plato’s dialogues of Socrates are ancient, they are still valuable today and can be applied to everyday life.
Plato’s work Republic offers the most definite link between virtue and education. Book VII of Republic begins with the allegory of the cave. In this tale, prisoners are kept in a cave from the time of their birth with their heads permanently locked. Then, people behind the prisoners use a fire and a screen to project images in front of the prisoners, and the prisoners would be limited to the reality of the shadows on the wall. If a prisoner escaped, he would turn around and learn the true nature of things. His knowledge would expand, and he would be a better human being than a helpless prisoner. Thus, Plato suggests that the pursuit of higher knowledge, including mathematics, allows a person to escape mental slavery and become a better human being.
Plato then moves past the allegory and explicitly states the values in learning geometry. In Republic, Plato states that anyone seeking to effectively run a country should learn geometry. Mr. Pitts adds that in addition to granting the necessary skills needed for success in battle, geometry also teaches reason, logic, and truth, relating back to what Ms. Watson said earlier.
Adding to this, Mr. Pitts explains, “If you’re the leader of a country, you have to very logically and systematically understand very complicated situations.” You truly never know when you must use the valuable lessons the study of mathematics gives you. We should always try our best to learn what we are being taught in math and carry these lessons throughout our entire lives.