Opinion: In Defense of Math

By Emily Shawgo


The word likely evokes some kind of emotion in most who hear it.  Arguably one of the most hated school subjects, math is the subject of great controversy.  On one hand, experts view math as the “M” of the STEM fields widely growing in popularity and importance.  On the other hand, students at all levels question the relevance of and need for continuing math education.

In the new Carlow Compass curriculum, math is no longer a requirement – instead, it is part of a category that includes all sciences and psychology of which students are required to take two courses.  Although some majors still have a requirement for a particular math course, others do not.  While the decision came as a small part of a wide restructuring of the curriculum, it does beg the question: What is the value of math?

This question can be answered with a number of clichés.  Math is important, teachers tell us.  We will use the things we learn again someday, even those complex geometry proofs. Understandably, this answer has fallen short for generations of students.  We don’t need higher math to balance a checkbook or figure out how much a pair of shoes will cost on sale.  We carry calculators in our phones and can Google answers to complicated questions.  If we are to believe that math is still important in our lives, we need a different answer.

We need to stop apologizing for math.

We need math.  It is time to stop pretending that we don’t. While we may not use everything we learn in math every day, it is no different than any other subject we study in school.  And yet, there is no other subject in which we so readily accept defeat on a large scale.  When was the last time any of us had to diagram a sentence?  Yet we do not question the study of English in schools or give up when we struggle, claiming that “we just aren’t good at it” – because we can see the value behind what feels like complex busywork.

Not only does it matter to be educated in math, but it also matters what attitude one has toward it.  A study done by Penn State University showed that those who experienced math anxiety struggled to comprehend statistical information in a news article – regardless of how they actually performed in math courses.  In a society that allows “I don’t like math” or “I was never good at math” to be an acceptable answer, this should cause us to question how informed we really are as a generation.

If there is no other defense to be found for math, think of this: The value lies in how math helps us frame the world.  For every person who doesn’t think in numbers, there is someone else who does.  Without those people, we cannot understand the world around us.  And we never know who those people will be, or how they may struggle to learn along the way.  We cannot give up on math simply because it seems to be a struggle, any more than we can give up on anything else that does not come easily.

Perhaps, in fact, we should appreciate it all the more.

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