Why Study Math?

Dear Reader,

Do you ever notice that no one asks this? We might ask why about some of the higher maths like trig and calculus but we don’t ask why study math at all like we might for art or music or even history. It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine that the STEM subjects, as they call them, (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are so emphasized while others are neglected. But we never ask why we study math at all. It’s always good to consider these things though and in the section for this week’s Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, Charlotte invites us to do just that.

Charlotte is arguing, as she often does, against certain ideas prevalent in her day. The big one here seems to be that studying math with train certain faculties in the child’s mind, will cause them to exist even. Charlotte, believing as she does in the personhood of each child, rejects the idea that we produce any such faculties in our students. She believes that the powers of logic and reasoning which they need are already in them. Nor does she seem to believe that these powers need to be trained particularly by us. She questions also whether the logical training of mathematics actually carries over to any other area of life (an idea which has also been floated in our own day).

So why study math? The answer, to Charlotte, is because of its own inherent beauty:

“We take strong ground when we appeal to the beauty and truth of Mathematics; that, as Ruskin points out, two and two make four and cannot conceivably make five, is an inevitable law. It is a great thing to be brought into the presence of a law, of a whole system of laws, that exist without our concurrence,––that two straight lines cannot enclose a space is a fact which we can perceive, state, and act upon but cannot in any wise alter, should give to children the sense of limitation which is wholesome for all of us, and inspire that sursum corda which we should hear in all natural law.” (pp. 230-31)

In our own day, I think we have lost this idea. We do really emphasize math (along with the other STEM subjects) but our goal is just to get ahead of other countries. We don’t study math for its own sake nor do we talk about its beauty or how it shows us the constancy and absoluteness of its laws. Charlotte discusses math under the heading “Knowledge of the Universe” which it is but knowledge of our universe has its greatest value in that it points us to the Creator of the Universe and tells us something of His character. This, then, is the true value of math and the best reason for studying it.

One final note, while math is important, Charlotte cautions us against letting it become too important. It is, she says, very easy to test and this fact tends to make it assume greater proportions than it should have:

“But education should be a science of proportion, and any one subject that assumes undue importance does so at the expense of other subjects which a child’s mind should deal with. Arithmetic, Mathematics, are exceedingly easy to examine upon and so long as education is regulated by examinations so long shall we have teaching, directed not to awaken a sense of awe in contemplating a self-existing science, but rather to secure exactness and ingenuity in the treatment of problems.” (p. 231)

This again is a warning that we need to hear.

Charlotte sums it all up very well:

“To sum up, Mathematics are a necessary part of every man’s education; they must be taught by those who know; but they may not engross the time and attention of the scholar in such wise as to shut out any of the score of ‘subjects,’ a knowledge of which is his natural right.” (p. 233)


4 responses to this post.

  1. This reminded me so much of “A Mathematician’s Lament” by Paul Lockhart. If you haven’t read it before, it is well worth a read. (http://mysite.science.uottawa.ca/mnewman/LockhartsLament.pdf)
    I don’t agree with all he has to say (He, like Mason, is concerned with awakening “a sense of awe in contemplating a self-existing science,” but does not seem to recognise the truth you mention in your post, that the “knowledge of our universe has its greatest value in that it points us to the Creator of the Universe and tells us something of His character.”). However, it’s certainly thought-provoking, and it taught me a lot. I hope you enjoy it!


  2. So.well.put. Really, Nebby, you’ve done a fantastic job of summarizing Charlotte’s words on the topic and I hope to always be as clear as you.
    p.s. I’m thinking we live close enough that we really should remedy the fact that we’ve never met face-to-face.


    • Cool! I don’t have any real life CM friends (some who are interested but not there yet). Why don’t you e-mail me at nebby3 at yahoo.com. Look forward to hearing from you.


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