Updated: Aug 22
You know when you’re showering and with the lack of distractions, something brilliant suddenly dawns on you? Shower thoughts. There’s a subreddit for those, too. The other day, while perusing r/showerhtoughts, I read this:
After 20+ years I am finally using algebra in the real world!!!!! …to help my daughter with her algebra homework. from Showerthoughts
and I laughed. I can’t count the number of times I wanted to jam my mechanical pencil in my eye during math class as a student. I’ve always been more of a grey area sort of person; I did well in subjects where I had to express an opinion or hone my ability to interpret the world around me. Black and white, yes and no, right and wrong, precise answers for precise questions… that’s where I struggled. Math class is where I really developed the colourful side of my vocabulary because that shit was full-on torture.
You know what I’m talking about. Admit it, most of you have all felt that. You’ve all been struggling to keep your eyes open through a math lecture about obscure equations that no right-minded human is ever going to use outside of the class. You’ve found yourself wondering what sadistic educator in darker times decided subjecting kids to this torture was a good idea. You’ve muttered creative language under your breath as you tried to recall complicated functions during final exams. Even if you enjoyed math as a student, you had these moments. I know you did.
I’m not going to lie to you fine little heretics, I spent years after high school believing they only did that to students because they clearly hated us. Old people were just bitter at the expiration of their youth and so they took it out on those of us who still had it, forcing us to stay inside on warm sunny days clawing our way through problems that no one would ever need to solve for any other reason. I thought for sure there was no purpose in learning the higher levels of algebra that were crammed down our throats.
I was wrong, though, as I have been with so many other things. When you’re young, you tend to think everything you don’t like is clearly just there for the sadistic pleasure of grown-ups. Broccoli, pulp in orange juice, and algebra. They clearly just bring us into this world to laugh at our pain.
I realized I was wrong one night in Xpu Ha – a tiny little tropical beach in the Mayan Riviera. I’d had a few beers and myself and a few family friends had just witnessed a sea turtle come in to lay its eggs. The sky was a blanket of stars twinkling above us, as we sat on bamboo cots and discussed the universe. We talked about how all the light from all those stars was coming at us from the past. We discussed how scientists calculate how old that light is, and how far back humans have been able to see. We chatted until the tiniest hours of morning when one friend piped up,
“Sure, that math is useful for people considering astrophysics or engineering or something like that, but does a line cook like me really need to know advanced algebra?”
We cracked jokes about how none of us had ever used any of that math we were forced to get through in high school until finally, the aviation enthusiast and career flight path planner among us argued,
“Yes, you do. You use it every day.”
“I do not! I’m not talking about fractions or percentages or anything else we got through in elementary school. I mean actual algebra. I’ve never used it once since I left high school.”
“Yeah, you have.” The flight planner said.
The line cook cocked his head to the side, shrugged and looked around for support.
“Just hear him out,” I said. “How do we use algebra every day?”
And that’s when he explained it to us. Learning math, of any kind, isn’t just about the math itself. Sure, we need to know basic math like addition and subtraction to get through our day-to-day lives. But learning math beyond that is about training your brain. Learning how to solve algebraic equations is an exercise in logical thought. Algebra teaches us to problem solve and there’s not a single one of us who doesn’t have to solve problems every single day.
Math is how we condition our minds to think logically. Math, in all its infuriating glory, can lead to critical thought, skepticism and reason. My lovely little hellbound baby-eaters, math could be why you’re an atheist.
My mind was blown wide open that night. I went from one end of the spectrum to the other. I had always thought that all those high school math classes were just more evidence grown-ups hated teenagers. Now, I understand the undeniable fact that math, I’m so sorry kids, is probably the most important subject any of us have learned beyond the basics.
Now, when my son or step-daughter gets grouchy about their math homework, I tell them it’s not about the numbers in front of you, it’s about what those numbers are training your brain to be capable of.
I tell them that if they just fight through the frustration, math is going to make them smarter,
“You may not use the math itself in the real world, but that math is going to train your brain to be able to navigate that world like a boss.”
“Yeah right,” they say, rolling their eyes. “Clearly the only purpose of this math is to torture us.”
On a scale of one to pi, how much did you loathe math as a student? Let me know in the comments!