The Saving Grace of Math


Mathematics (Photo credit: Terriko)

Why would a community college English instructor like me be a math advocate? Actually, I’ve always been a math advocate, and just in the past two weeks, I’ve put together more clearly the reason.  In sharing memories with old friends from school long ago, wonderful math memories came flooding back, as well as a new perspective on why math can be a great subject for anyone, not just prospective math buffs

One argument of many students is, “Math has nothing to do with my career plan. It shouldn’t be a requirement.” Their argument sounds convincing and utilitarian, especially in an age of student loans and the need to get efficiently from point A to point B, point A being an education, and point B being a good job.

US Navy 100727-N-4304M-001 A student at a scie...

US Navy 100727-N-4304M-001 A student at a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) summer camp at Ryken High School in Leonardtown, Md (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, some important benefits of math lie hidden in plain sight now that I think about it. Today’s students often feel weighted down with life situations, whether traditional students or non-traditional. Home life for the traditional student may be fraught with stresses, and certainly we know the plight of non-traditional students trying to balance relationships, finances, family, and jobs. What could possibly be the upside of taking math?

First, it’s good to point out that we can’t think about our personal problems all the time. Sometimes, we need to think about impersonal problems—like math problems. Let’s think of math as an example of a neutral zone in which the subject matter does not have emotions. The student might feel emotions while trying to do the math, but the math is not of itself a drama with conflict and complex personalities. This can be a beautiful thing for several reasons.

For one thing, math is logical. It relentlessly is what it is—the ordering of steps in a prescribed order to arrive at the correct outcome. This will be helpful in all zones of life, both professional and personal since life is built on logic just like buildings are built on architecture.

Dansk: Dedikeret til matematik

Dansk: Dedikeret til matematik (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Next, math is relational: numbers, lines, angles, and shapes all relate to each other because they take up space; and not only that, they are positioned relative to each other and may intersect or overlap. But fear not, you won’t hear them fighting or going to war. You will just see what they look like on paper.

Also assuring is the predictable nature of math. In college math for non-math majors, one gets a hang of how equations work, and they work the same way every day. Just think about how disconcerting it would be if the sun didn’t rise every day. It’s the same for most math courses that most students will take. There’s a good feeling in getting into the rhythms of predictability.

Last, there’s a verifiable solution to the problems. With many subjects, people argue about what is the correct answer, and this is because with literature, history, and social discourses, values enter in and therefore debate.

This all might make math seem irrelevant to the utilitarian side of life since most study of math leaves its applied side deferred except for those who continue and do enter professions dependent upon knowing how to do the math. However, because of math’s qualities hidden in plain sight, it is a perfect type of learning that carries over into how we study and apply other types of knowledge, and into how we solve other types of problems.


Stress (Photo credit: topgold)

But even apart from that, we all need a break from drama, and the emotionless content of math and its impersonal nature can make it a welcome break from stresses. Almost everybody plays games for a diversion, so why not play at math and turn it into a more sporting mindset? It might relieve some stress.
pleasureteam note: Have you or your students been surprised by unexpected benefits from mastering your discipline?  Do you love your subject for reasons beyond its obvious utility?  Please share.


One comment on “The Saving Grace of Math

  1. Yes, in short, math is a powerful way of knowing. It’s too bad we spend so much time dwelling on how math is useful for the world of work when we could have saved two words, namely ‘of’ and ‘work’!

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