Why do we study math?

Galileo said of the universe, “...it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written.  It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.”  

Why do we study mathematics?  Students typically ask this in the form, “When will I ever use this?”  That question is flawed at its very core because it misses the real reason that we study math.  It assumes that there is no purpose in studying math beyond the preparation for a specific career.  At Madison, we believe that math is so much more than that.  We study math because it enriches us as people.  We study math because it teaches us to love its Creator more. 

To some, math is like a foreign language.  I don’t disagree.  Math is very much a language, and it is one well worth learning because it has great value in developing our minds and our character.  Too often math is seen as a disconnected subject to be understood and applied by a select few who are uniquely gifted.  I don’t believe that.  I believe that all students are capable of learning math, and I am convinced that all students are enriched deeply by its study.

Math develops our brains, our minds, and our character.  It builds the capacity to manipulate and communicate abstract concepts through symbols.  It trains our minds to remember, to visualize, to think logically and creatively, and to develop strategies for solving all variety of life’s problems. The study of mathematics teaches us to recognize and appreciate goodness and beauty in the complex patterns of God’s world.  Ultimately, a solid foundation in math prepares our minds to advance in language, art, history, science, and all areas of study.  Math also has great value in developing us as virtuous people.  It teaches us to rely on a solid foundation of unchanging truth, to persevere through difficulty, and to apply ourselves diligently in complex tasks.

Like any language, math has its own symbols and grammar.  To master it, we must first learn its symbols and its rules.  Students begin in elementary by learning the “letters and sounds” of math.  They put mathematical “words” together with operations and use them to describe and understand the world with arithmetic.  They memorize multiplication tables and other mathematical “vocabulary.” In middle school, they begin reading and writing the mathematical “sentences” of algebra to understand and express more complex ideas.  In high school they analyze and synthesize mathematical concepts and read and write mathematical “compositions” by proving and solving complex problems. 

Unfortunately, many students today struggle in math, not because they are incapable of learning math, but because they have not fully mastered the basic letters, sounds, and grammar of math with confidence.  Students are often placed in classes based on their age or grade level rather than their mastery of the foundational skills.  I liken this to asking a student to write an essay on “Crime and Punishment” without them first learning how to read or write a complete sentence.   It is no wonder that some students are overwhelmed and learn to hate math instead of understanding and appreciating it!

We want all students to become skilled in their understanding of math, because we believe that math contributes greatly to our development as people and to our understanding of language, history, art, science – and ultimately God’s truth and beauty.  This takes hard work and practice.  We are committed to teaching and supporting our students as they work diligently to master the foundational skills of math in order to advance and discover greater beauty in God and His Creation.