Reflection On “What Is Mathematics For?”

I recently read an article called “What Is Mathematics For?” By Underwood Dudley.  Rather than discussing why arithmetic mathematics is important, which has the obvious answer of everyone actually uses it in their everyday lives, the author discuss the other types of math including algebra, trigonometry, calculus, linear algebra, and so on (although focus is on algebra).

In the beginning of the article, the author introduces the history of the purpose of math starting with ancient Romans, Egyptians, and Arabic’s where their main purposes for math were not to study it and make it mandatory for the children to know and understand, but for reasons such as enjoyment.  It wasn’t until the mid 1900s when math became mandatory in school.  Lately, many people have believed the myth that mathematics is required for almost all jobs.  This might be true for arithmetic, but calculus and trigonometry? Not a chance.  Even then for the jobs that require these types of math, almost all of these jobs will have some sort of technology like a calculator or cash register to help solve the math.

At one part on the article where he is discussing what reasons other people think math is important for (second column of page 609), Dudley lists a quote from a book that he read and he replied with the following statement:

“Exactly what career this applied to was not specified.  Nor was it mentioned that the best way to solve this problem is to find a member of the group and ask.  The answer should be forthcoming.  If the person’s reply is the conundrum in the text, the member of the group should be beaten about the head until he or she promises to behave in a more civilized manner.”

I just couldn’t stop laughing at this partially because I never would have thought to have asked a member of the group.  I mostly likely would have tried to calculate the question in my head (which let’s face it, wasn’t that hard) even though asking was obviously the easiest and fastest solution to the problem.  Also, I just love how Dudley makes fun of the author of the book in this statement.  In the first two sentences, this pokes fun saying that the scenario posed was completely unrelated to the book topic (how math is in many careers) and that it did not justify the author’s argument in any way.  In the last sentence, which is just altogether an awesome and rather hilarious sentence, when the author states “if the person’s reply is the conundrum in the text.”  This just shows how unrealistic the actual scenario and replies were in the book and that this book might not be worth reading and taking notes on.  Also, beating someone as a way to civilize them is really more hypocritical than anything because beating someone is itself an uncivilized act.  So really, I just loved the humor the author added to spice up his article a little more.  I will also make one note which is that although Dudley pokes fun at this author, he also supports the author by saying that the author’s example was “superb”, but that they just shouldn’t have used to justify mathematics in careers.

Alright, now that I have completely destroyed that joke and made it completely not funny, the author goes on to discuss other reasons why we teach math which includes: used in everyday life and jobs and it prepares students for higher level math classes.  Finally the author gets to what he believes to be the reason for teaching math: “mathematics develops the power to reason.  It shows, better than any other subject, how reason can lead to truth.”  This isn’t a new idea, Dudley provides an exert from a text from 1834 and 1906.  Dudley’s belief of mathematics also reflects the beliefs of my education math professor and somewhat more recently, my own beliefs.

I recommend that everyone read this article as I feel that it has some valuable information and that it reflects what I believe to be the most important reason for teaching math.  I also feel that many people don’t understand why we teach math and why it’s important that students know and understand it so this article might help to clarify these issues.


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