When am I ever going to use it?
Why do we need to learn this?
These tiresome questions have bothered educators for years, especially teachers of math or the sciences. The facetious response is often: “Why of course! We have a test in six weeks.” Whether the question is answered or silenced, however, it’s rarely satisfactorily addressed, and students often have reservations about exerting themselves to learn these subjects.
But let’s be fair for a moment and hear the question out. If students aren’t going to use this knowledge in any foreseeable way, is there any good in teaching it? My opinion is that subjects that prompt these questions are extremely valuable in ways that often get ignored.
Now, of course, some students will graduate to become engineers, designers accountants, analysts, technicians and so on. It’s certainly true that their education would be stifled if not for the essential lessons of K-12. While this is, in my opinion, enough justification for maintaining math and the sciences, there remains an even more compelling reason to educate young minds on these subjects.
Our brains are not simply storage units that hold information, but rather they operate as active agents in processing information. Moreover, brains aren’t static; they change over time, based on the information that they encounter. When we learn new information, therefore, we don’t simply add knowledge to some repository of facts.
What’s more, we are actually changed. Our capacity of imagination, our powers of conceptualization and even our sense of judgment are all enriched and expanded upon as we learn. Put simply: When we learn, we don’t just attain information, but expand our horizons so that we are overall more intelligent and better at identifying problems and creating solutions.
Mathematics and the sciences involve their own languages with their own sets of rules. This mental transition to a heavily symbolic language has an incredibly unique impact on the brain, inasmuch as it provides a capacity to think systematically, sequentially and logically in ways that cannot be provided similarly by any other subject. If we were to stop teaching students these subjects, they wouldn’t merely be deprived of the practical benefits that can come from the knowledge itself, but their overall mental capacity would be irreparably limited.
To put it into contemporary perspective (perhaps humorously), skipping math is somewhat tantamount to an athlete who skips leg day. You might be well aware of the expression about the warnings against only working out the upper body: “Friends don’t let friends skip leg day.” Some athletes do so, because their overall focus is more aesthetic than practical, so there’s no perceived appeal in strengthening the lower body.
But foregoing exercise on the lower body limits the potential of the whole body. In real instances of physical exertion, we very rarely (perhaps never) use muscles in complete isolation. Our muscles cooperate, such that even many simple movements require the combined effort of numerous muscles.
When you refrain from teaching a certain part of your body to work, you create a disproportion in yourself that hinders the whole. Similarly, when you refrain from teaching the brain how to think mathematically and scientifically, you create a disadvantage for the brain itself.
This is why it is advantageous for students to learn mathematics and the sciences, even if they don’t foresee circumstances in which they’ll ever be directly useful.
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