Woster: Relevance of math in life

I've heard folks say the math they studied in school has no relevance in real life. I'd probably say that about bookkeeping, even though I enjoyed the course.


I’ve heard folks say the math they studied in school has no relevance in real life. I’d probably say that about bookkeeping, even though I enjoyed the course.

I understand why people think their mathematics courses were irrelevant. Anyone with a smartphone carries a major-league computer around in a hip pocket. Need to add a bunch of numbers? Find the calculator app on your phone. Turn your hourly pay into yearly wages? Find the “times’’ button. Square root of something? Probably an app for that. I confess I haven’t needed to find square roots very often since I left school, and I’ve never used the calculator app on my phone – if there is one. But I can understand the argument for the other uses. And I could find a square root if it meant winning the lottery or something.

I like the idea of knowing how to do math in my head – adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Not the complicated stuff necessarily, but basic math problems. If you’ve ever stood in a long line while a clerk tries to make change by hand, you know what I mean. Usually, the calculations at a check-out counter are done by the machine.  Sometimes when the calculation must be done manually, it’s painful to watch the wheels turning. I’m not being critical. It’s a different world than the one in which I memorized the “times tables.’’ A different world than when I memorized the periodic table in chemistry, too, I suppose. Or “Gunga Din’’ in literature.

What I learned in those math and algebra classes wasn’t so much addition and multiplication as it was patience and process. The way Howard Elrod taught it back in high school, it was all about logical steps. If a student masters the first step, they can master following steps. Skip a step and there’s trouble. Build the foundation correctly and the walls and roof are solid, too, simple as that. There’s a discipline in the process that has value beyond the final exam in each math course.

The same sort of discipline applied in other Elrod classes. He taught chemistry and physics. I remember the Doppler effect and Newton’s laws of motion and the fascinating business of rates of acceleration in which Galileo dropped a couple of weighted objects from the leaning Tower of Pisa to show they fell at the same rate. (I’m told he really didn’t do that, but it’s a good image.)


In physics lab, my group dropped a couple of weights to test the acceleration-rate thing. Mr. Elrod told us to put something under our experiment to protect the floor. We chose a text book. You wouldn’t think a plain old weight would slice right through the cover of a physics book, would you?

We also tried a weight and a feather, which Mr. Elrod assured us would fall at the same rate, “all other things being equal.’’ In physics, as in so much of later adult life, all other things seldom are equal.

So, back to bookkeeping. A guy has to like a course with a name spelled like that, right? Three groups of double letters – oo, kk, ee. If I’d been the first one to write it, I might have gone with just one “k,’’ but I was merely a student for a semester.

The course filled an opening in my schedule. The other choice was typing. I probably should have taken typing, but by the time I was in high school, I’d acquired a portable, manual typewriter and had taught myself some atrocious, unbreakable typing habits, fast but sloppy. To this day, carpal tunnel and all, I can type with blazing speed, if you don’t deduct for errors.

People who know my informal ways will be surprised, but I loved the structure and discipline of bookkeeping. The rows and columns, the double-entry debits and credits, I found those things soothing and balancing.  I passed, too.

How is it, then, that by the second month of our marriage, Nancy had taken over the family books, which were woefully out of balance? Hey, I took bookkeeping, I reminded her. Could have fooled me, she said.

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