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Adventures of a stay-at-home, skeptical, homeschooling dad (etc.)


Useful Subjects

"Kids should learn all kinds of things, like geography, classic literature, ancient history, world history, American history, state capitals, economics, philosophy, world religions, art, theater, music, Latin, French, iambic pentameter, haikus, sentence diagramming, and algebra."

"Algebra?! You'll never use that in real life!"

Ok, so I made up that conversation, but it seems like that sometimes. Someone might be lamenting that kids don't know who the 4th president was in one sentence, and the next is about how useless algebra is because they've never used it in real life. The rule seems to be that if it might help you in Trivial Pursuit, go ahead and teach that, otherwise, screw it.

While I admit that the average person "doesn't use algebra", there are several things to consider:

  1. Outside of basic reading, basic writing, and basic math, the average person never directly "uses" most subjects taught.
  2. Some people do use each and every subject, including algebra and calculus.
  3. A particular subject can still help you, even if you don't "use" it.

I have never found any practical use for reading and reporting on The Great Gatsby and the works of Dickens. I have never found any practical use for knowing about ancient Egypt or Rome. I have never even found any practical use for knowing about D-Day and the rest of WWII. That makes them all useless… except that's not true. It is true that I've never found practical uses for those things, but… Knowing about what happened in the aftermath of WWI and WWII helps me understand why things are so screwed up in the Middle East today. Reading classic literature is enjoyable and important to know if you want to enjoy modern literature. Knowing about Ancient Rome and Egypt is just plain interesting, and helps put other mythologies in perspective.

In short, I don't "use" that knowledge for itself, I use it as background to understand and enjoy the world.

Similarly, I don't often directly "use" all the higher math I've taken, although, as a programmer, I have found uses for algebra, geometry, and even calculus from time to time. But, even outside of the programming context, I've used algebra and geometry for practical things such as wood working and home improvement. Granted, I didn't need to know geometry to figure out a particular project (thousands of carpenters manage without it), but knowing the concepts certainly helped me in ways that would have been unavailable otherwise. Algebraic concepts are now a part of my background knowledge, and I'm better for it.

Additionally, there are many people who do use knowledge of world geography (eg: those in international business). There are people who do use knowledge of art (eg: artists, museum staff, auctioneers). There are people who do use knowledge of world history (eg: historians, diplomats). And I'm sure there are even people who find uses for their social theory and communication degrees.

So, too, are there people who use algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. Who? Well: programmers, architects, scientists, and engineers of all kinds. Physicists, chemists, and biologists. Statisticians and medical researchers. If you're saying "algebra is useless", obviously you aren't one of these, and that's OK. It boils down to a set of tautologies: Those who have a use for it, have a use for it, and those don't have a use for it, don't. But just because you're someone who "never found a use for algebra", that doesn't mean there are no uses, or that other people don't use it.

The question is: how do you know ahead of time? If you are never exposed to higher math, will you know it is an option? Will you know it will never come in useful? I'm not proposing forcing every child through a full set of higher math classes. As a home educator of a 6-year-old, algebra is a long way off, and my plans (as of now) are to continue to let her pursue her own interests, so I don't plan to force algebra and calculus on her. That could change of course, but that the plan for now.

What I am proposing is that people drop the "algebra is useless" and "algebra is hard" mantras, and expose children to higher math concepts. Kids are drilled that math is hard and even useless; I'm sure more than a few are prematurely put off. While I have heard a few times that English classes are only there to grow new English teachers, it hardly reaches the levels of math-hate I hear all the time.

So, all I'm saying is that, in addition to teaching useful things like ancient Babylonian laws, the exploits of Marco Polo, and the names of the beaches invaded on D-Day, maybe some time might be devoted to learning the language of the universe?

2014-01-13 #school   #science