Homework and the Apparent Uselessness of Math

As I write this, Carter and Zac are sitting at the kitchen table working on math homework. Like his father, Carter is very very good at math. Conversely, like his father, Zac is not very good at math. I did okay with most subjects in school, except for 7th and 8th grade, when every class bottomed out for me academically. I had to begrudgingly ask each of my teachers fill out a progress report every Friday. I missed the bus a few times because my 7th hour ComputersII teacher made me wait until he was done making copies on the mimeograph before signing the form. These days, parents can log in and look at their kids grades, absences, missing assignments, and teacher comments. It won’t be long before we can find out how many times our kid blinked during the Virtual Reality headset lecture on the ancient technology of cavemen who used first generation iPhones.

It’s fun to hear my boys — “The Brothers” (as Cam calls them) — work on graphing skills and quadratic equations while I brew another pot of strong decaf coffee. I don’t have the courage to tell them that they will likely never use these skills in the real world, though I regularly present the age-old Dad lecture about school as the path to success. The objective is to prove you can jump through the hoop and move on to the next stage. I would chart a graph of the future practicality of this particular math unit that Zac is working through, but I don’t remember how. This is because I haven’t done a single quadratic equation since my 11th grade Algebra class. The only thing I retained from Algebra is X equals D minus.

I see Zac is experiencing the same frustrations in math class that I did. The Kahn Academy videos are poorly translated, and YouTube keeps crowding teaching videos with 20 HILARIOUS CAT FAILS – TRY NOT TO SMILE! According to the video description, the last one had them ROARING with LAUGHTER!! Laughing/Crying emoji, etc.

As a Xennial (born between 1977 and 1985, though I can’t remember precisely when), I look at the crying emoji and recall a simpler time when we typed ROTFL, which never actually happened and certainly doesn’t happen now, because such a demanding physical act would certainly tear an important ligament that took a beating in the 1990’s because we insisted on jumping from great heights and wearing Reebok Pumps which offered no orthotic support. Our knees didn’t hurt then like they do now.

It seems to me that we’re due for an overhaul of our current education system. You’ve seen the memes: let’s teach less calculus and more personal investing. A few years back, I was in a meeting with decision makers at my alma mater, and this very issue came up. The question was asked: what if, instead of requiring our students slog through a generic math credit to graduate, we had them take a class on financial management and thus fulfill their academic requirement AND be able to do their own taxes? I have to wonder if there would be a correlation between college freshmen discovering the scoop on compound interest and plummeting student loans. Yet we rage on with our quadratic equations, which never comes up on a 1040. And, if it does, you need to hire an accountant. Hopefully they were a math major.

See? I’m not saying that math is useless. Far from it! It’s just that people like me aren’t good at it and probably never will be. Teach me the basics: show me addition/subtraction/multiplication/division. Help me figure out how much carpet to buy in square feet. Equip me to do fractions when we’re doubling a pancake recipe. Also, please give me pancakes. But save the higher end stuff for the higher end students. Let me read a book and write a haiku. Let me build a house and try to get the pitch of the roof just right. Teach me pharmacology so that I know not to take Tylenol and Motrin at the same time. Walk me through history so we don’t make the same mistakes. Give me the best philosophers to not only read but slog through, because it’s in the slog that we are forced to really understand their worldview and, as a result, better understand ourselves.

Most of all, give me an identity beyond social media. Help me figure out who I am, why I exist, and what a good life looks like. Answer the eternal questions. Reveal and discuss the hard questions until we’re both confused yet enlightened. For me, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only theological construct that, I believe, answers all the questions with the integrity to acknowledge that there’s still a good dose of mystery involved.

The good thing about students learning a subject they’ll never use again is the stretching of their young, plastic brains. Even if you don’t value what you’re learning, the very act of trying to comprehend the unknown will expand your mind. Students are, in essence, learning how to learn. I don’t remember all the presidents, but at least I don’t have to google to find out who’s in the White House now — even though the current guy might have to.

Carry on, my sons, and struggle through the unknown. Yes, jump through the hoops. You may have a grand life plan and vision board, but I can attest that plans change in a way that is beyond your control, and certainly beyond your desire. We don’t know what the future holds, a truth that seems to be even more concentrated as culture now develops at a dizzying pace. Make your graphs, don’t complain too much, and learn how to learn. Press on. Grow.

Maybe the future is nothing but graphs. We won’t tweet: we’ll graph. Perhaps the math geniuses will rule the world. If so, I’d better watch those videos. Of cats.

The only part I truly understand is the pen.

About radamdavidson

When I'm not blogging, I'm hanging out with my family, pastoring a church, or listening to vinyl. I think and write about Jesus, music, communication, organizational leadership, family whatnot, and cultural artifacts from the 1980's -- mostly vintage boomboxes. You can read my blog at www.radamdavidson.com, watch [RadCast], a daily 3 minute video devotional, or find me on socials (@radamdavidson). I also help Pastors in their preaching and public speaking (www.CoachMyPreaching.com).
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