When will I use this? The same question is asked another way each time an adult sarcastically praises these courses as they wade through schedule after schedule of IRS forms. Surely, time would be better spent on practical things! Budgeting, taxes, retirement planning, and the list could go on and on. And on first blush, this seems rational enough. Running a household budget and managing finances are all things a person should learn how to do and they will all but certainly come in handy.
So why hasn’t Algebra been replaced with Consumer Mathematics? After one learns the four basic operations, why not offer students a Dave Ramsay course and be done with the matter? Is it because there is a chance the next great architect is sitting in the classroom? Engineer? Some teachers will offer this as an answer. And indeed, these math courses will hold a practical benefit for those pursuing those careers.
In the end, however, math occupies a more dignified place than utility. Humans are prone to spending exorbitant amounts of time on what Plato called “the realm of becoming.” Meanwhile, precious little time is spent on “the realm of Being”. The former is the realm in which things come and go. The latter is where ideas permanently exist. Our occupation is all too often on the changeable world all around. Our attention and focus is on how to manipulate it to best serve our interests. For example, family conversations about how to spend advances on tax refunds illustrate care and concern for current circumstances. In order to do this, practical math is used. Debt is weighed against income and investments for the future are considered. What good is Euclidian Geometry at this point?
The answer to that and similar questions is that math turns our minds and souls toward that which “is”. It directs us toward those things which are permanent and abiding. At the top of this list, is Truth itself. Seeing how this works is easy enough. In simple arithmetic, we find absolutes. 2+2 is and always will be 4. As math progresses, the student delves more and more deeply into fixed laws. There can be no question but that the awareness of such laws, the understanding of non-perishable, unchanging ideas, turns the mind toward changeless realms and a mastermind Creator. One area in which this is seen is the Golden Ratio. As a student explores the natural world, the most beautiful buildings, and even the Milky Way, they discover the imprint of this ratio everywhere. It remains a clear sign of divine order-something which points beyond itself.
Ultimately, math prepares the student for philosophy and theology. Whether either is ever pursued in earnest, the possibility is still there and the groundwork for understanding a God who is changeless and beautiful is laid. In a classical Christian school, our primary endeavor must be to cultivate students in virtue. Turning their minds toward Truth, Beauty, and other permanent ideas ( and as a result, Christ), allows an academy to utilize yet one more tool at our disposal in raising godly young men and women. Put simply, math (and especially those higher maths which may seem useless) turns us toward the Author of its laws. That is the reason why all students should learn it. As Plato reasoned, “It’s hard to trust that in these studies a certain instrument of everone’s soul-one that is destroyed and blinded by other practices-is purified and rekindled, an instrument more important to save than ten thousand eyes. For with it alone is truth seen.” (Republic VII: 527e)