Is Math Really Important?

I met someone after church the other day, and the conversation went like this

  • Someone: And what’s your speciality?
  • Me: Mathematics
  • Someone: So, you teach in the University?
  • Me: No, why should I be teaching in the University just because I specialise in mathematics?

There seems to be a general impression (and I’m deliberately overstating this) that the only use for math is to teach it. Even some teachers believe this, apparently. Here’s another conversation I had with someone at a bus stop :

  • And what is your job?
  • Mathematician
  • (grimaces)

The person quickly recovered from her grimace, then went onsay she had even heard primary school teachers saying “Math is not important – you only need it to add up restaurant bills”

Ouch!

For the record, I work as a mathematician in a small company in the oil and gas industry. Our company helps other companies find new oil and gas reserves, and my job involves putting some mathematical smarts into the software we use. However, the majority of my colleagues, be they programmers, geologists, geophysicists or even the CEO have a good (or at least a tenuous) grasp of university level mathematics.

Sure, maybe many people do just use math to add up their bills. However, even the average Joe or Jane would find their life much better if they tucked a little more math into their toolbox. For example,

  • Which mobile plan really is best for you?
  • You car insurance premium has gone up a little, but the car value has gone down – so how much is insurance company actually gouging you?
  • Do you really trust your bank to tell you if you can afford the mortgage they are selling you?

It has been said “There are two kinds of people in the world – those who understand compound interest, and those who pay it.” Which kind would you rather be?

If the goal of education is to prepare children for the future, then good educators will emphasize mathematics. One simple reason for this is that students with a stronger math background have a wider range of career choices. Combined with the fact that math education is declining in western countries, this means that those few students who graduate strong in math will be able to pick and choose the cream of careers – assuming they also develop the flexibility and personal skills that a quickly changing future will also demand.

  • If you drop high school calculus, you drop the opportunity to be a good engineer, economist or actuary. Naturally, jobs like mathematician, statistician, physicist or chemist are out-of-bounds.
  • If you drop intermediate-level math in high school, you will suffer if you choose to study computing, accounting, pharmacy, commerce and a whole range of subjects needing some statistics, such as business, psychology, most sciences, in fact, which also includes dentistry and medecine
  • Drop all math, and there’s virtually nothing left. Caveman, maybe?

So if people are dropping math, the jobs that require more math will naturally pay better (not just salary-wise, either). This is besides the fact that the economy actually needs people in the jobs at the ‘math-intensive’ end of the scale.

Not that kids will swallow all this – but those who guide them must!