Really, what is the value of X?

Dec. 20, 2001, midnight | By Sally Colwell | 19 years, 1 month ago

Blazer questions the practicality of higher-level math for students not numerically inclined

My last fond memory of math is from the second grade. We were having a test about addition, and we got to play with little colorful blocks which we snapped together to find our answers, or used to build tiny imaginary cities, which was how I chose to utilize them.

After finishing addition I was feeling pretty good about myself, when suddenly the multiplication tables hit me like a gigantic graphing calculator across the noggin. And I have never recovered.

I've already resigned myself to a career free of parabolas and cosine waves, and I don't think I'm missing out on much. I can understand how balancing a checkbook will be useful in the future, but the need to know how to measure the angle of elevation from my eyes to the top of the flagpole while using only a pencil on a string is just beyond me.

In an informal Silver Chips poll, 69 percent of students say that their parents do not use higher math in their lives, and 77 percent say they do not plan to pursue a career in mathematics. I began to wonder why classes like Algebra II, Precalculus and Calculus, which in my opinion will serve only to lower my GPA, are mandatory courses at Blair.

The question proved to be far less controversial than I had anticipated. Most people agree that the higher-level math courses at Blair are useless in everyday life. The only real disagreement I found was whether these classes should remain mandatory despite the fact that they are useless.

Pick and choose

Sophomore Sam Levine believes that he learned all the arithmetic he needs in life long ago. "I think all math after the fifth grade is useless," he says. "I'm never going to apply NASA math in the real world." He cites basic adding, subtracting, multiplication and division as all he needs to get by.

Levine says he feels that being forced to take a course in mathematics is never going to help him in the future, and that math should be an optional class in high school.

Surprisingly, Geometry teacher Pete Barrow agrees. "Personally, I think that the idea that you're being put through precal and calculus is ridiculous," he says, adding, "Whoever came up with that policy can kiss my…foot."

I wanted to know if he thinks I will make use of my marginal grasp on mathematics in the future. "I hope you won't need it," he exclaims, having experienced my complete ineptitude first hand.

According to senior Nick Cope, math is especially useless during job hunting. "At job interviews no one's going to ask you, ‘Well, can you integrate graphically?'" he says.

Nevertheless, NSL Government teacher Lansing Freeman believes that higher-level math classes should remain mandatory for all students. "I had to do it, so you have to do it too," he says. "Difficult and somewhat inscrutable higher level math classes help to build character," he adds.

The possibilities are endless

Burton, an engineer who also happens to be my math tutor, says that he uses math on a regular basis outside of his work. "I use it when I worry about whether or not I'll have enough for retirement," he says. "I use it when I worry about whether or not my child is going to college."

Math can also be useful even while driving, according to Freeman. "The only math I use outside of school is subtraction, as I subtract the posted speed limit from the actual rate at which I am traveling, to establish exactly how much I am speeding," he says.

Junior Mahbu Khan says he uses math in the kitchen and in his personal life. "[I use math] whenever I'm trying to cook or measure anything…and using the phone, I need to know the numbers…" he says, and trails off.

According to Sophomore Catt Edgley, most of the math she has learned is pointless, although some areas will probably prove useful in the future. "I plan on being a detective," she says, "and if you know the trajectory of a bullet or a blow to someone then you can recreate the crime scene easily." Still, Edgley adds that she would rather not spend her time in math classes which are of no interest to her.

It's all about the digits

After learning that detectives use math in their work, I started wondering what other professions might secretly be harboring a requirement for something more than multiplication. I started wondering if politicians high up in our government ever make use of their ivy-league math classes. I started wondering if George Bush uses math.

"I don't think he can even add," says Cope.

After a ponderous moment, Barrow says, "I trust that he's surrounding himself with expert advisors in that and other fields."

Freeman was less generous. "He only uses fingers and toes."

Well by my count I've got ten fingers and ten toes, and armed with my snappy colored blocks from the second grade I must be way ahead of Bush by now. So look out Dubya, because ready or not, here I sum.

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Sally Colwell. Sally Colwell is co-centerspread editor and is tremendously excited to be on paper this year. In her free time she enjoys reading novels, drawing, not practicing the violin and attending demolition derbies. During the summer she is a counselor at Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies … More »

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