Life is an Express Train…

The brilliant Zack Weinersmith at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:


There is a danger that a profession becomes self perpetuating. When I was in school, they were saying that about both accountants and lawyers. They needed a constant stream of new regulations and changes to the statutes (whether that was legislation or the tax code) to make sure that their work remained complex enough to stay ahead of the computers. Simple accounting can be done by Quickbooks but you needed some interesting wrinkles so that you would still have to keep going back to your human accounting department to look things over to make sure there wasn’t something you were missing.

Although I don’t think math is like that, and kids who ask “When will we ever use this?” do deserve to be mocked. But there is a glitch in the way that math is taught which is really an accident of history. For the most part, the way math is arranged across the grades is based on the chronological order in which it was invented/discovered (a discussion for another time) rather than what is either a) easiest to understand or b) what is most relevant in the job market. Calculus predates most probability theory but today, you’re more likely to want to be able to read a scientific journal article critically than to calculate the area under a curve. Calculus is also more useful to the rocket scientist than the computer programmer. And while it’s nice for historic understanding to be able to grasp the continuity in our expanding knowledge, the knowledge base is becoming so large

The problem with the question “When will we…” is that it pre-supposes the stupidity of the asker. The people who invented the iPhone or work for NASA or work on the algorithm that decides what Netflix will recommend to you are using this stuff and they are smart people. But when you ask that question you (probably without realizing it) imply that you’re not destined for a smart-person job, so wouldn’t it just be faster to cut this smart-people stuff out of your timetable. And at that point, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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