When will I ever use this in real life? (No one ever “solves for x”! (Or do they?))

As I wrote eight years ago, it seems that I discuss this topic every couple of years.

But there’s always a new reason to do so. Here is the 2020 reason, expressed in this cartoon:

What we have here is a combination of three issues. No surprise, since everything comes in threes of course:

  • In the 2012 post, the three issues were
    • whether to reject the question outright,
    • how to answer it if we don’t reject it, and
    • what the big picture is.
  • In this 2020 cartoon, the three issues are
    • how to answer the question if we don’t reject it,
    • why the answer might be different for the “smart kids,” and
    • why the teacher is being so obnoxious.

The big picture for both contexts is that nobody knows when anyone is going to use any particular piece of knowledge. On any given Sunday, anything can happen. Maybe  you’ll use algebra, maybe you won’t. I don’t know. More importantly, you don’t know. Will you use algebra at some point in the future? Maybe so, maybe not. More subtly (and admittedly more abstractly) you will surely use the underlying concepts of analysis and problem-solving, even though you might not ever “solve for x.” And the so-called “smart kids” (a phrase that no good teacher would use, especially to one who is being labeled “not smart”) might be more likely to use algebra — if you buy into the implicit premise that good students go into the sciences, whereas bad students go into the arts or more likely nothing academic at all. So the teacher is being obnoxious in two ways: using the “smart kids” label and buying into the “two cultures” divide that CP Snow wrote about so effectively.


Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning