This meme about not using Algebra has been making the rounds. We didn’t want to let the opportunity pass. So. Let’s talk about how many time you actually used math today. Just because there are no Xs or Ys in sight doesn’t mean you aren’t using Algebra every single day.

Popular meme floating about the internet. Origional image credit: Unknown
Popular meme floating about the internet. Original image credit: Unknown

Let’s say you go to the supermarket, you have ten dollars in your pocket and need to buy some produce and some beverages. Once you look at the prices, you figure out how much you can put in your cart without getting embarrassed at checkout by having too little cash.

That’s Algebra.

If you’ve ever set your alarm clock to get to a meeting on time, and you needed to figure out how much time to allow for picking up coffee on the way, that’s Algebra too. In fact, every time you need to problem solve a situation that involves money, time, distance, the perimeter of a fence, volume of something, cost versus time…need I go on?

You are using algebra.

But here’s a real surprise: Did you know that today you used advanced calculus, geometry, and a whole truckload of maths we likely haven’t even discovered yet? If you have a dog, they did too. Admittedly, this isn’t the kind of math the meme was talking about, but if we’re going to discuss math use, then let’s make it interesting.

When you throw a piece of paper into the trash can a couple feet away, how do you know that you don’t need to throw it as hard as you possibly can to cover the distance? It’s because you instinctively calculated the required trajectory, the air resistance, the weight of the piece of trash, and the force needed to make it to the trashcan. Not only that, but you also figured out how strong of a nerve impulse to send to each muscle at each moment in time to make that muscle contract (or relax) just the right amount at just the right time (of course, if you miss the trashcan, then that means you did your math wrong. But we’ll let it slide.)

Your brain did all that math without even consciously thinking about most of it (which is why people so often say, “the brain is the most complex machine known to man”).

Interestingly, even babies are able to calculate trajectories. If a baby as young as 16 weeks sees an object approaching them on a trajectory where it will land near them, they just track the object. But if it going to hit them, they will preemptively turn their heads away. The reason for this is ostensibly to protect their eyes. They aren’t perfect, but they are pretty good at it. Even if the object is going to land right next to their head, they don’t bother dodging it. The accuracy is remarkable. Prior to 16 weeks, they don’t have the visual acuity to pull this trick off, so it’s unknown just how early this innate math actually develops).

And if you’ve ever seen a dog catch a morsel of food in midair, they’ve first had to do the same kinds of math (admittedly, not Algebra – but innate, advanced Calculus in a canine is more impressive anyway.)

Now, all that said, here is the heart of the issue:

You won’t use algebra for your job, so why should we teach kids how to do it? At least, that is the argument so many people seem to be concerned with. Why should we raise people to be intelligent, productive members of society—why raise them to be problem solvers and critical thinkers who are able to respond to a multitude of issues—when, really, all we need them to be is consumers and participants in our capitalist society?

And you know, I have no argument against that.

If we want people to only be capable of the bare minimum, if we don’t want to encourage them—be they blue collar factory workers or white collar stock brokers—to explore the universe around them, to put down the smartphone and try using their brain…well, then I guess we shouldn’t bother teaching them algebra. Hell, if that’s our goal, we shouldn’t really bother teaching them anything.