What’s the point of calculus?

Other than being the pinnacle of high school mathematical achievement, I’m not really sure. Yes, engineers and physicists, I hear you. But for the 99% of people who will never derive a function again in their lives, why do we spend all of high school building to this anticlimax?

More and more the world is described by discrete mathematics, rather than continuous mathematics. Discrete math is all about 1s and 0s, logic, statistics. The building blocks of a computer. Continuous math is about physics, motion and you guessed it, calculus.

As Ted Dintersmith has suggested, maybe the new pinnacle of high school should be statistics. After all, probability, expected value and correlation vs. causation are topics that are relevant every day of our lives.

I bring this up because today a student asked me about calculus. And I racked my brain trying to find a good reason why she should learn it, or why it’s interesting and could be applied in a human life. I couldn’t think of anything.

I don’t say this because I disliked calculus. In fact, I loved it. I understood the material and did well in the class. But I liked it because I was good at it, not because it mattered. I was just checking the box like everyone else.

But time is running out. We can’t afford to make students check boxes that aren’t relevant to their lives. Many high school won’t go on to higher education. And that’s okay. What if they had employable skills after high school instead of box checking skills like how to integrate a quadratic function?

Math needs to change. It’s not fair that students ask what calculus is good for and we have no good answer. It’s not fair students don’t understand the statistical principles that govern the lottery, credit card debt and more. That’s where math intersects with life every day and too many students never gain an understanding of it.

As someone who loves math and believes in the joy of learning, can we please make math relevant?