Jason Rosenhouse (below), a professor at James Madison University (and author of some excellent math books), spoke at the graduation ceremony for JMU’s College of Science and Mathematics over the weekend and his speech is one of the best I’ve ever read.
He gets right to the heart of the question math teachers (and most others, I’m sure) hear all the time: When are we ever going to use this in life?
We did not show you the Pythagorean theorem because we were preparing you for that inevitable moment, when someone comes up to you on the street and says, “Quick! I know two sides of a right triangle, how can I calculate the third?” We showed it to you because it’s a beautiful theorem, and I hardly think we need to apologize for showing you something beautiful. We showed it to you because it’s surprising and wonderful that the sides of a right triangle have any particular relationship, let alone one that’s captured by an equation as elegant as A squared plus B squared equals C squared. Or, to put it differently, Pythagoras don’t need no reason.
Incidentally, I don’t know who first noticed that relationship (it wasn’t Pythagoras), but I’m sure he was picked on in middle school.
Not everything has to be about the daily grind. You are permitted to learn things you will not eventually be tested on. A liberal arts education is not about practicalities. It is about seeing yourself as one link in a long chain. It is about connecting yourself with the generations that came before you, and recognizing that you have much in common even with those far separated from you in place and time. And that’s valuable. At a time when political polarization is causing real suffering for real people, and at a time when people can carefully choose the websites they read and the news channels they listen to so as to ensure they only hear opinions they agree with, I’d say anything that helps bring us together hardly needs any further justification.
When will you ever need to know any of this? Possibly never. But don’t you want to know about it? Don’t you want to experience the most poignant representations of the human condition, as explored in the disciplines of the humanities? Don’t you want to know what the best available evidence can tell us about who we are and how we got here, as made so clear to us by the sciences? I hope you do, because that’s the point of it all.
He adds that you can always learn about the more “practical” things on your own, but the esoteric ideas are much harder to pick up once you leave school.
Seriously, read the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did.