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Learning Algebra: "I'll Never Use This!"

Updated on April 22, 2013

One of the most common questions I hear from algebra students is, "Why do I need to learn this. I will never use it." I usually give a short answer because the question arises at a moment when there is not adequate time to answer it. This article seeks to answer that question fully. In addition an underlying assumption will be addressed.

Why Learn Algebra?

The first reason is the one I rarely talk about because it only redirects the question elsewhere. In many cases, algebra topics are determined by state boards and commissions. These boards will examine each algebra class, such as Algebra I in high school or Beginning Algebra on the college level, and determine who should take the class and what the class should teach. I know there are some instructors who will answer the question this way. However, this response only answers who decides what the student should learn and never addresses why.

The second reason is that students are required to get a well-rounded education. This education includes not only Math but English, History, and Literature to just name few. It is good to have some understanding about all these subjects because one never knows what life will bring their way. In addition, having some knowledge in all areas versus knowledge in only one area is the difference between a bachelors/associates degree and a simple certificate. Students that want to only learn one subject, for example computer science, can attend college to get a certificate in that subject. They are rarely required to take anything else. However, for a bachelors or associates degree, students need a well-rounded education.

The third reason is how I most often answer students with this question given a limited amount of time. I tell these students they are right and they may never use factoring or adding rational expressions again. But math is more than just learning individual topics. Math involves problem solving and logic. Learning math teaches you to think your way to solutions. In my opinion, this is the true value in learning math. Forget the numbers and the variables, students need to learn to think through problems and come up with solutions. Math teaches a person to look at a problem and decide what "tools" are available and then use those "tools" to solve the problem. Learning math is about problem solving and logic more than it is about numbers and variables.

When students ask the question, "Why study algebra?", they very quickly follow the question with "I will never use this." It is the last statement -- a huge assumption -- that needs to be addressed. It now seems strange to me that a person who is about 20 years old can tell what knowledge he or she will need over the next 60 years. But when I was that age, I thought I knew all about how my life was going to go. When I was in school, I despised two classes: Speech and English. I wondered why I had to learn them since I would probably never use them. I now think this to be very funny since I teach at a college and I write more now than I have ever written in my life. The point is this. Learn all you can because you do not know what life has in store for you.

Summary: Learn Algebra, Don't Fight It

Even if a student is not an engineering major or mathematics major, that student needs to learn algebra. Above, I have given four reasons, but the best two are learning algebra will help a person think through problems and a person just might need it later in life. While I was working on my bachelors degree, I thought much of what I learned was worthless. Thirty years later, I realize that I have used most of it in some very important ways. Learn all you can while you can.

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