On the Uselessness of Mathematics and Resultant Magical Oracular Godness of Computers

I’ve been thinking about mathematical education a lot recently.  Mostly because my sister is professing math at a college at which many students believe and state that they do not need math because all they are going to do in life is work at the mines.  I find this sad for many reasons.  In addition, one of the gentlemen who walks about the gym while we work out has recently taken to coming to my sister and attempting to convince her that mathematical education is useless because engineers get everything from computers and, for example, he would never need to find a square root because his calculator does that for him.

As a computer scientist, I have to wonder just how he thinks that computers and calculators work.  Spoiler alert, it’s not magic. At some point, they had to be programmed by someone.  Someone had to understand all the mathematical operations well enough to program and optimize them to run on the relevant hardware.  Even using them you have to think about what exactly kind of numbers you are getting and whether the numbers make sense, because, surprise, hardware can malfunction and give a wrong answer.  Then, of course, there are tons of user errors resulting in giving the machinery wrong input, which will, of course, result in the wrong output, and the user really needs to have sufficient mathematical education to realize when an error has occurred.  If I don’t understand that, I have no choice but to blindly trust and obey the computer and those who do actually understand the computer.  Computers should be tools, not gods.  I also worry that as the world becomes more computerized we will get a new class distinction between those who understand computers and those who don’t.   Maybe we’ll just enter the world of an Asimov short story where a human who remembers how to do arithmetic becomes the difference between victory and stalemate in a Cold War like dystopian future.

Anyway.  Just asking how education is “useful” or “useless”  in a context of being used for a specific job is missing what I consider to be the point of education.  (Also missing the possibility of looking for intrinsic beauty in something.  I realize that beauty is subjective, but it’s impossible to even consider when the metric is strictly use, where use seems to mean, ability to make money in a capitalistic society).  We learn math in order to learn to think analytically with rigorous definitions and logic.  Yes, this is difficult.  Thinking in an analytical and rigorous is not easy for most people, and unfortunately education at lower than upper post-secondary level suffers from many educators not having a thorough education in math.  So yes, sometimes in an effort to keep students occupied educators trouble students with excessive amounts of mathematical busy work, which, unless the students are Gauss (in which case they are probably already roaming the streets smiting the wicked with their Derivative Blades), will not allow them to appreciate the thinking and beauty of mathematics.  But it’s hard to be a teacher.  Particularly when teaching a subject that many people find difficult and many people have been primed to expect will be difficult.

Personally, I don’t quite get the whole “math is bad because hard” attitude, because, yes, learning things is hard.  School is hard and students are expected to work.  Shocking.  But why is it math getting the bad reputation? Things like sociology are hard and depressing because we have to wonder if we are the villains in the many problems of the world.  In math, we get to be the heroes, and in introductory math we don’t have to do anything except solve that which is already well-solved and has been for centuries.  Solving the problems of mathematics is a lot easier than solving the problems of society.  Delegating the problems of mathematics entirely to computing doesn’t do anything except add to the classist problems of society.

Featured image from Wikipedia.  With a little GIMP editing by me.  

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.


  1. February 23, 2014 at 8:00 am —

    Your criticism of the way math is taught on the secondary level is spot-on. Maths was an absolute nightmare as a kid, something to dread before and immediately forget after the class was over. It took me several years and starting to study biology to get at least some appreciation for it, but it’s mostly trying to fill the gaps. I use mostly learning games like DragonBox for that and desperately wish those had been around when I had been in school. Hopefully some good teachers are starting to use them in their classes soon.

  2. February 23, 2014 at 12:58 pm —

    I’m so sorry for your nightmarish math experiences, but it sounds like you’ve got a good thing going with DragonBox (which I wot not of, so thanks for that.) Good luck with biology, and the math you’ll need for that (statistics? At least? I really don’t know.)

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