The Benefits of Studying Mathematics
Patrick Ratchford, professor and mathematics chair, shares his views on why math is important for all students.
"An exercise that I do early in many of my math courses is to ask the students why it’s important to study the field of mathematics. After they offer their insights, we usually discuss them, and then I offer my answers, detailed below. I don’t claim that these answers originate with me. These are the answers that most mathematicians would list.
1. Math is useful.
Virtually everyone needs to be able to do some mathematics. Some fields (such as the sciences and engineering) require quite a bit of mathematical knowledge. Don’t rely on this answer, though, to convince your friends that math is important: Though these observations are accurate, they won’t convince a music major that she should study calculus.
2. Math is fun.
Most people have experienced the pleasure of getting the right answer to a difficult mathematics problem. It is the same pleasure we get from figuring out a puzzle. This answer may be more true for people who are successful in their mathematical pursuits: People probably won’t find a lot of pleasure in something that they struggle with.
3. Math trains the mind.
I don’t claim that every problem one encounters in life can be solved mathematically. But I do believe that people benefit from exposure to mathematical logic. The process of breaking things down—here’s what we know, then here’s what logically follows from that, and so on—and working our way to a logical conclusion is something that everyone can benefit from.
4. Math is part of our cultural heritage.
People should study mathematics for the same reason that we should study art, literature, history and science. The intellectual achievements of Descartes, Newton and Leibniz in mathematics are on a par with those of Shakespeare in English literature, Leonardo da Vinci in art. I firmly believe that college students should be exposed to a broad base of liberal arts classes, and mathematics is part of that base. Too often when the “usefulness” of mathematics is the only thing that is emphasized, mathematics becomes just a toolbox containing only those tricks of the trade that a student absolutely needs for her particular profession. Math is more than that. Much more.
5. Math is beautiful.
This is the hardest for students to grasp, but I do believe that when a student has acquired a certain level of maturity she can understand that some results in mathematics really do deserve the adjective beautiful. Many mathematicians can recall a moment, often in their undergraduate careers, where a certain solution or proof strikes them as remarkable. This is what I mean by beautiful: a mathematical result that surprises and impresses with its elegance and simplicity. It may be that the beauty of mathematics is less immediately accessible than the beauty of art or music or literature, but it’s there.