Why Learn Math?

Math gets a bad reputation. It’s hard, abstract and, especially the way most professors teach it, feels completely detached from the real world. Since my MIT Challenge involves doing a lot of math (far more than programming) I thought I’d try to explain why I feel math does matter.

How Useful is Calculus in the “Real World”?

One of the major criticisms I’ve been getting in my challenge is that I’m learning a lot of theory and math, but doing less practical projects. It raises a valid point, people often complain that what they learned in school is detached from the way the world works. If that’s so, am I just wasting my time, since I won’t even get a degree out of my efforts?

I couldn’t disagree more, but I realize my worldview is different from most people. Learning theory matters. Math matters. Not the symbol manipulation that most people are force fed in calculus classes, but the general principles that help you understand how the world works.

In Order to Change the World, You First Need to Understand It

North American culture largely eschews learning theory. We make fun of people who have “book smarts” but lack street smarts. Entrepreneurial wisdom is favored over academic calculations and we distrust anyone who has an idea they haven’t gained from experience.

I think this mentality is dangerous. How can you possibly hope to create positive change in the world if you don’t understand it? No, understanding is not exclusively the domain of textbooks and classes, but if you don’t ever bother to learn how things work, you’ll always struggle to change things, whether that’s in finding a career or improving your life.

I find it interesting that many Asian cultures don’t have the same bad attitude about math and theory, and these are the same cultures that are experiencing the fastest economic growth, higher test scores and whose children succeed more when immigrating to more developed countries.

Math Isn’t in the Numbers

The reason people complain about never using the math they learned in high-school, is because math isn’t about equations and symbol manipulation. Sure, that’s a part and it’s the part instructors tend to focus on. Math is really about general truths which help you understand relationships between ideas. Once you have a deep intuition about how a branch of math works, you can use it on any problem which has those same relationships.

Knowing 3×5=15 isn’t exclusive to counting three bags of five oranges. It applies to bank accounts, buildings, people and profits. The same is true for calculus, statistics and other advanced maths. If you get the intuition of how the relationships in math work, then you can use it on any problem, even if it is something you’ve never had any experience dealing with before.

That’s the real power of learning theory. Not that it replaces learning through experience, but that they make it far more powerful. It cuts down trial and error, helps you see patterns and think of new solutions to problems. Because often the best way to change the world is to first understand how it works.

  • Phil Henderson

    You just said a whole bunch of nothing.