When Will I Ever Use This?
 Photo: Thinkstock
Sometimes I miss being a kid — the hours with nothing to do but pretend and play, the excitement of having everything ahead of you, the snacks. I even liked school, all except for that appalling hour of the day called — just the word still induces a shudder — Math. I can palpably recall the dry-mouth, sweaty-palmed feeling of staring at a geometry test and seeing only a jumble of nonsense squiggles. Math anxiety is a real condition, and oh, what a dreadful one. The worst part of all the suffering was that it seemed so pointless, just an exercise in educational torture. "When am I ever going to use this?" I'd moan into my algebra. "WHEN?"

So I was very relieved to learn that as an adult in possession of a calculator and tax accountant, as long as I'm not too picky about things like grocery bills, math actually can be largely avoided. Hooray! Then I read this post on Dim Sum Thinking on the beauty of math and the facile question "When Will I Use This?"  It seems this whole time I've been asking the wrong question.

The post argues that looking at math's practical applications is not the best way to get students interested in the horrible torture beautiful elegance that numbers have to offer: "The hard part is that math is so darned useful. There is math everywhere. It’s easy for us to think about learning the math we need to do science or economics." But to this math teacher, math is every bit as enjoyable for its sake as the more beloved activities of playing band and football, disciplines kids enjoy without asking how they use the skills they hone later in life.

The passionate post goes on to say that "math is a game. We have a set of rules and we take turns playing this game. When the rules change — say we relax that fifth postulate so that a line can have no parallel lines through a given point — we are playing a different game." Game? He also uses words like "play" and "wonder." Curious. It makes me think of learning in general, of all the times I've heard people (classmates or my own students) ask that grating question "When will I use this?" while dissecting a poem or a tricky French verb conjugation. If we really operated under the "When will I use this" principle, wouldn't we all attend only trade schools, learn only how to keep house, feed ourselves, and work? Is that all life is?

We've all heard about how life-long learning is good for our brains and spirits. And now this news that math can be fun Perhaps instead of asking "When will I use this?" we should ask ourselves, "How can I use this?"