Is Mathematics Useless?

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Few subjects taught at secondary level of education elicit more disliking/controversy than does the study of mathematics. What should be taught, how much of it, to whom, how, and why, are matters of much disagreement.

William Heard Kilpatrick, like many others, believed that anything beyond basic arithmetic was useless in day to day living and so worthless. He and his confederates wished to reform mathematical study so that it only catered to the needs of practical matters- the nuts and bolts of counting, time and money. This argument is plausible, so then why is it that students are forced to spend countless hours doing more complex problem solving like geometry and algebra which seem to have nothing to do with our day to day needs. This ideology is in fact not new at all- it was around 400 A.D that St Augustine of Hippo strictly warned, “the good Christian should beware of mathematicians and all those who make empty prophecies”. Truly, that is how many students feel to this day.

It is however, simply a matter of understanding that these aren’t empty hypothesis: mathematics is a realm of its own- a living matter whose drive may not be worldly applications, but the end result is exactly that.

G.H. Hardy (an influential mathematician) wrote that he perused mathematics without so much as a single thought to having his ideas be of practical relevance. In fact, he took comfort from this remoteness. Such is the nature of mathematical study. A good mathematician would not concern himself with the practicality of his work mainly because one never knows when the moment of application might strike- it might be the next week or another 50 years. As for G.H. Hardy, his work soon became of pivotal importance with the invention of computers.

So while, in the dawn of mathematical study, practical implications were the drivers of mathematics- soon it was realized that “pure” mathematics could in itself create space for applications- and that it did.

Soon, mathematics was behind the scenes of much that is around us and this has never been truer than in this age of technology. Without mathematics, our powerful computing abilities from mobile phones to DNA profiling (for forensic study) would be impossible! So with its roots spread and spreading over all areas of our lives, ignorance in this field would be preposterous.

But I must concede, the method of teaching in our schools is lacking in many ways. While more focus is placed on learning the methodology of problem solving, little or no time is given to understanding the reasoning and deduction behind it and so very often students miss out on the experience of true mathematical inquiry. Without the element of curiosity, mathematics could not have its birth, and I fear that by disregarding this element (in schools), we are going to cause its demise.

In the spirit of such problem solving, I urge you to watch this video on a seemly complicated question made easy by mathematical analysis and reasoning:


Written by Foqia Shahid

Photo illustration by Slate | Photos by Getty Images.

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