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How embracing 'useless' math can enhance our thinking

Discover why a Stanford grad believes math teaches us more than just numbers.

How embracing 'useless' math can enhance our thinking
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Nothing Ahead

Often, when people are asked about their least favorite or most challenging subject, the answer given is "Mathematics." Many students commonly argue that learning math is pointless, as they believe it has no application in their future careers. This perception holds some truth. Unless our job demands us to solve mathematical problems, we rarely have to think about calculus, algebra, trigonometry, and other concepts we learned in school. In a LinkedIn post, Stanford alumnus and math enthusiast Hamza Alsamraee addressed the flawed logic of this argument.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Andrea Piacquadio
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Andrea Piacquadio

As a math major, Alsamraee agreed with the common view that many will not solve complex problems in their careers. "I'll never solve a partial differential equation for work. But why is that the standard we judge the value of learning by?" he wrote. To this Stanford alumnus, saying that the college math we learned was "inapplicable in the real world" seemed silly. "College isn't a vocational training program. It's meant to provoke your curiosity, to expand your horizons," pointed out Alsamraee. Also, for those who think that college should only teach things that are actually applicable to real-world jobs, he wrote, "If you want 'real world' learning, go to a boot camp/trade school, etc. There's nothing wrong with that. But trying to turn college into trade school is stupid."



 

Alsamraee, founder of the tech company NewForm, also highlighted how 'useless' math concepts actually sharpen our thinking skills. "How to analyze problems. How to weigh different perspectives. It's not a surprise the smartest people I've met in business also happen to have a lot of 'useless' knowledge," he wrote. As per the math enthusiast, "Curiosity shouldn't be constrained by capitalist pursuit." He mentioned that if people let capitalism control what we learn, we would become a "noninteresting person with little ability to think laterally" and that an AI agent will outperform us soon. "Go read about philosophy, math, history, whatever intrigues you. Who cares if it makes you money? It'll make you human," he concluded.



 



 

His post went viral, garnering over 15K on the platform. Later, Maheshwari Peri (@maheshperi) shared it on X (previously Twitter), where it gained over 172K views after a student asked them why they had to learn trigonometry as it doesn't have real-life applicability. Not long after, people started sharing their views. "The response makes sense. Learning new unknown things opens up avenues and triggers curiosity. However, Trigonometry has real-life uses too. Without knowing Pythagoras's theorem, one might always take longer routes while they can reach their destination diagonally," commented @maddyb65.

"It's laughable when someone says Trignometry and PDE have no real-world applicability. Just because students are not taught 'direct application' in class, does not mean there is no application in the world," wrote @shivakjolad. "He's articulated his argument so well. Now we need systems of education and evaluation that force us to think and question," commented @sammoorthy21.



 

Speaking of college-level math, a Harvard math entrance exam from 1869 has been making its rounds on the internet. A Canadian mathematician and professor, Anthony Bonato (@Anthony_Bonato), shared those math questions pointing out that the calculator was not allowed back then. This left the internet flabbergasted, with many feeling lucky they now have access to calculators during math exams.

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