A few weeks ago, one of my 9th grade students asked me the question I hate to answer: "why do I need to learn this stuff?" First, I gave the terrible reason that he has to know it to pass the state-mandated test at the end of the year. But, because I believe that there's a lot of superfluous content in high school math, I also told him that he might never need to know it ever. I went on to say that because we cannot predict the future, it is impossible for me or for him or for anyone else to know whether or not he will ever need to know it. And, often, when adults are asked, they say that they wish that had paid more attention in school especially in math class. By now I was on a roll so I stepped up on my soapbox and continued. Mathematics is not just about getting right answers. Mathematics is a way to experience the world and a way to think. We, as humans, do two things that are different from all the other animals on the planet: we explore the human condition through history, literature, art, music, etc and we attempt to understand the natural world through chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics… Mathematics helps us think logically and creatively. It gives us a way to explain and explore the patterns present in the universe. Without mathematics, our 21st century way of life does not exist. Without mathematics, beauty does not exist.
At the end of my ranting and raving, another young man raised his hand and said, "Most of the time, when you ask a teacher that question you get a lame answer. But that one was pretty awesome." I hope it sticks with a few of them.