Why study mathematics? To get a job.


There will never be a just social order until philosophers are kings, or kings become philosophers.  To become a philosopher ones soul must be drawn from the changing, to the real.  This is done through the study of mathematics.

On the subject of whether to publish a blog, I’ve moved back and forth.  I’m still figuring things out, and feel like I don’t want to step into the public arena with half-baked ideas.  On the other hand, through a series of fortunate circumstances and chance encounters, I’ve learned a great deal about mathematics, teaching, and learning, and perhaps some of that’s worth sharing.  What finally sparked the desire to put something online, was a need to have a space somewhere to collect the odds and ends I encounter every week or so.  In my training year, I wrote ‘reflective emails’ each week to a group of thirty people.  I didn’t like writing into a ‘journal,’ but the idea of writing for an audience suited me, even if no-one actually read what I wrote; so there’s another reason in favour of a blog.  If it sparks a little interesting debate along the way, all the better.

Since it was Plato’s words that served the concluding strike in my to-ing and fro-ing, I thought I should make my first post on that subject.  What I liked about the quote, was that it provided yet another argument for the study of mathematics.  Strange, though, that I should feel the need to gather up such arguments.  Shouldn’t every person take it as a given that mathematics is worthy of study?  Hmm…

In a later post I’ll probably compile the arguments I’ve heard or created to date.  Here’s my favourite: ‘to get a job.’  What I love about it, is its simple functionality; so easy to say, so easy to understand.  Even if you don’t plan on becoming a rocket scientist, damnit, you probably need at least a C in maths to do… anything!

Surprisingly though, here’s what happens a few years after we inform young minds of the need to study mathematics, to get a job:


Suli Breaks - We will not let...

Suli Breaks will not let exam results decide his fate

Ouch!  This young man is clearly angry; frustrated.  A talented poet, his words probably echo the feelings of a generation or two.  I suspect his frustration with the school system is well founded, and I often share it.  There are a few key lines worth picking out:

  • “Why does he have to study subjects he will never ever use in his life?”
  • “…and then lie.  ‘You know to get a good job you need a good degree.'”
  • “She will lie, simply because she does not know any better herself.”
  • “Although her whole adult life, she has never used or applied Pythagoras’ theorem…”

What struck me in this poem was Suli Breaks’ ability to spot what he calls ‘the lie.’  There’s a sense that none of us, pupils, parents, teachers, really know why certain school subjects are worth studying.  There’s a sense that we suspect they’re important, but since the vast majority of what we learn, we never directly apply… we can’t quite articulate *why* they are important.  So, we reach for something simple, clean cut; we say that they’re important because they help us to get jobs.  Of course, they only really help us to get jobs not as a result of what we have learned, but as a result of the lettered grade on our certificate.


We must all study hard to get a job, but the job is a lie

This impotence isn’t true of every individual teacher, of course.  There are many who deftly inspire pupils with a sense of purpose in studying their subject; but there is no sense of ‘collective understanding’ of why we study, beyond ‘to get a job.’  When I turned up to ITT, we were one time asked to come up with a few responses to this question ourselves; we weren’t handed a list of good reasons for studying mathematics.  I would have quite liked to see that list, I would like to know that every other maths teacher in the country had seen and memorised verbatim that list, and that collectively we all shared the same understanding of why our subject was worthy of study.

While I think Suli Breaks makes many errors in his outpouring of emotion, like his own parent character, I suspect he does so because he knows no better, and in creating this poem no doubt he feels he is rebelling against ‘the lie.’  I doubt it’s his fault; I imagine he was told relentlessly that he must study hard, to get a job.  From his own website then, he talks about how he studied hard, and as reward received ‘few more job prospects than when he started.’


Another clear, running theme in those lines picked out above is that of ‘utility,’ the notion that we should only study or learn about something as a means to an end, with the later intention of directly ‘using’ what was learnt, in some clear, obvious and direct application.

If job prospects were the only reason to study he was ever provided, who can blame him for his vitriol?  Who can blame him for being no better at articulating why we should study the subject disciplines we prescribe at school?  Would Suli Breaks be the inspiring poet he is today without his formal education?  Could he write poetry about Pythagoras’ theorem and pathetic fallacy if he’d never once learnt of them in school?  Just how much of what he learnt in those years is he drawing upon in his art, without even realising it?

I really have one point to make in this post: Please, let’s stop telling young people that they must study, to get good grades, to get a job.

Each subject is a part of the school curriculum, usually, for more than one reason.  None of them have ever been, nor should be ‘to get a job.’  The alternatives may be trickier to communicate, and more challenging to understand, but they’re worth it, and they can never be mistaken for a lie.

For now, here’s one more to add to the list of reasons for the study of mathematics: “To draw ones soul from the changing, to the real.”

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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8 Responses to Why study mathematics? To get a job.

  1. Michael Tidd says:

    This is certainly not specific to Maths. Indeed, you could probably argue for the redundancy of pretty much the entire KS4 curriculum in some form or another. Sometimes think we need to dig deeper into our own reasoning for learning – and find ways to share that joy of education with our students, right from the youngest age. Learning to love to learn for its own sake and the broader benefits, rather than the specific.

  2. Harry Fletcher-Wood says:

    This is a great post and a really important idea.

    As you say, it’s hard to imagine students responding to this. I feel it’s just overused as a threat – and it’s unsurprising that people don’t respond to the argument that ‘you need to learn this – it’ll come up in the exam.’ I also think it comes from the top – education is funded, qualifications manipulated, in large part, to meet the economic needs of the labour market. That’s fine, but education is and should be about far more than that.

    I tried to pass on a similar message to my students in assembly on Monday – school is more than passing tests: http://improvingteaching.weebly.com/2/post/2013/04/whats-the-point-of-education.html

    The more teachers pass this on, the better.

  3. Phil H says:

    I like your reason for learning maths, but you’d have to be very careful using with students. The problem for students (at secondary school and university level) is that many of their teachers seem convinced that they (the teachers) or their subjects will “change our souls”. As a 15 year old, only newly in charge of your own soul, you’ve suddenly got ten people telling you to listen to them to make your soul better. And of those ten people, you only like one, five are just meh, and four you actively dislike. In that situation, I would choose (did choose) to reject any talk of changing me or my soul. I’ll come and learn your bloody physics, but I’ll learn it as me, thank you very much.

    I’m a little bit older and wiser now, and today I don’t think of myself as an unchanging me. Instead, I try actively to change in ways that I like. But this is a recent thing. As a teenager, I hated being told that something was “good for me” or would mold me for the better.

    • krisboulton says:

      Interesting anecdote. Motivation is certainly a complex concept; one that I’m interested in. I agree I’m not wholly sure how effective something like a quote from Plato would be in engaging kids! It’s still nice to know even as a teacher, though. Sometimes even as teachers I think we can benefit from being reminded the reasons why our subject is worthy of study – as I said above, “I would have quite liked to see that list.”

  4. raminblair says:

    As a teacher who must defend the subject I teach (chemistry), I have yet to have come to a satisfactory response to doubters. However, I have decided that those who encourage students to believe that they should only learn things that they like, or things that are directly applicable to their careers, should be shot (metaphorically.)
    If I had been allowed to drop maths and sciences as a teenager, I would been denied opportunities that I had not imagined. As a teenager I was convinced that science was nonsense and truth lay in mysticism (I know, not a typical teenager); the only careers I could envision were acting or living in a monastery. A few years after leaving school, I became interested in biology. I started studying maths and chemistry on my own (for which my forced high school classes had prepared me) and decided to become a scientist. I went on to love science with a passion, got a degree and spent several years doing immunological research.
    If a teacher had told me that I was right not to study maths, (because I wouldn’t need it as an actor or a monk), they would have been responsible for the closing off that future. They would also have impoverished me as a human being. Understanding maths or physics or poetry is about appreciating and sharing in the achievements of Homo sapiens.

  5. Pingback: From transience to endurance: what makes school display effective? | Pragmatic Education

  6. Pingback: What are the three reasons we teach stuff? | …to the real.

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