I’m sure that is a question that is asked in almost EVERY math class in America. Possibly it is also asked in science, English, and history classes as well, but I’m not sure. Math, however, seems to get the short straw a lot. People “hate” math, they are horrible at it. Math is hard. Students head to college unprepared for STEM degrees/jobs, which are the most in demand.
However, as I was studying with my 1st grader his science test about matter I asked myself, “When was the last time I used the fact that there are three states of matter. Sure, I boil water to cook spaghetti and freeze water to make ice, but I don’t need to understand the properties of matter to actually boil and freeze water.”
The bottom line is that we do NOT educate students so that they can go through life with the minimum of knowledge. For 7 years I was a stay-at-home mom. In order to get through life I needed to be able to read and do arithmetic, I needed to know how to use scissors (those all-important coupons), and the basics of cooking (nope, I didn’t even really need to understand fractions, although it’s helpful). I needed to know how to drive and the rules of the road. I needed to know how to do laundry and clean a house. I needed to know how to soothe a crying baby/child and how to find directions. NONE of those things did I learn in high school. I’m not even sure my high school offered a home ec class, and if they did I didn’t take it.
The truth is, outside of our careers, we don’t use the majority of the information we learn in high school and core college classes. I don’t remember the year the US entered WWII, but I know that the war took place in the late 30’s and 40’s. I haven’t read Shakespeare since I was in high school and don’t remember anything outside the basic plot of Romeo and Juliet. And while I could probably still balance a chemical equation, I haven’t done so in over 10 years since my college Chemistry class.
The point of secondary education and beyond is not to get our students to a point of simply being able to survive life with minimal skills, it’s to teach them a plethorah of information so that they can be:
1. A well-rounded individual.
2. Exposed to many different topics so that they can see what interests them and what they’re good at.
3. Once they do choose a career they have all the background information they need to move forward in learning and specializing.
4. To exercise their brain muscle and teach students how to learn and be life-time students.
I teach my students Algebra not because I think they are going to be sitting around their kitchen table solving equations every day, but because I want to open a door to them. I want my students to be grounded in the basics of upper level mathematics so that they have the ability to choose a STEM career, or go into business and use math modeling to make a business successful, or even to major in a non-math related subject that requires Calculus.
My guess is that history, science, English, foreign language, etc. teachers teach for the same reason. It’s not because you’re going to be using this information every day of your life, but rather so that their students have the ability to choose any career that they find themselves passionate about.