In the following article, I expand and clarify my arguments that first appeared in this post.
A colleague recently sent me another article (thanks Doug) claiming that Statistics should replace Calculus as the most important math class for high school students.
The argument usually goes: Most kids won’t use Calculus. Statistics is more useful.
As you might know already, I disagree that the most important reason for teaching math is because it is useful. I don’t disagree that math is useful. Math is not just useful, but essential for STEM careers. So “usefulness” is certainly one reason for teaching math. But I don’t think it’s the most important reason for teaching math.
The most important reason for teaching math is because it is beautiful and eternal. Math is the single place in school where students can find deductive certainty and eternal truth. Even when human activity ceases, math will persist. When we study math, we tap into something bigger than ourselves. We taste the divine!
We are teaching students to think deductively—like a mathematician would. This is such an important area of knowledge for students to explore. They need to know what it means to prove something. A proof provides a kind of truth that is unattainable in other subjects, even the hard sciences. At best, the scientific method is still just guesses compared to math.
This is the most important thing we pass on to our students. Though some will, most of our students will not directly use the math we teach. This is actually true about every subject in high school. Most students will not remember the details of The Great Gatsby or remember the chemical formula for Ammonium Nitrate. But we do hope they learn the bigger skills: analyzing text and thinking scientifically. In math, the “bigger skills” are the ones I outlined above—proof, logic, reasoning, argumentation, problem solving. They can always look up the formulas.
Math is a subject that stands on its own and it is not the servant of other subjects. If we treat math as simply a subject that serves other subjects by providing useful formulas, we turn math into magic. We don’t need to defend math in this way. It stands on its own!
If students can take both Statistics and Calculus, that is ideal. But if I had to choose one, I would pick Calculus. The development of “the Calculus” is one of the great achievements of mankind and it’s a real crime to go through life never having been exposed to it. Can you imagine never having seen The Mona Lisa? Calculus is like the Mona Lisa of mathematics :-).