She has to want to do math for herself, not for me

Years ago, when I taught mathematics, one of my students dropped my class halfway through the school year. I asked her mother for an explanation, and she replied, “She isn’t committing time to do her math and it has been a cause of stress for her. I don’t want her to study math because I want her to, she has to want to do it for herself. This isn’t the case so it’s probably best for her not to continue.”

This unusual line of thought spun me off into a maze of thoughts about math education. Maybe my student’s mom was right. Should you compel your child to study mathematics? And especially when it can cause stress? Do children study math because they want to or because their parents want them to? Why do schools require math?

Outside of a few math aficionados, most young people study math because it’s part of the school curriculum. To be blunt, for many young people, math is a hoop that must be jumped through on the way to graduation. Most of us, if we don’t end up in science, accounting, or engineering-related professions, don’t actually use math beyond the level of arithmetic in our adult lives. Even then, our phones can now figure out the tip on a restaurant bill quicker than we can, so what were all those years of math for?

I began to see the logic in my student’s mom’s reply. We don’t really need math, so why are we forcing our children to take it? Sure, the aficionados should be taught math since they clearly have the talent for it, but what about the rest of us?

A little fiction. I have to admit that I made up that little anecdote, but it is based in reality. The truth is the only math I have taught was to my son, and in that case only arithmetic. But the fabrication was for a good reason: we usually cannot see clearly that which is right in front of us. We take things for granted. We study math, but do we really know why other than that it’s required by the school our child attends or that some experts have told us it’s necessary? We take it for granted that math is required but that other subjects, such as music are elective. In other words, you’ve got to take math whether you like it or not because someone in the past said so, but you only take music if you want to or, as some people say, if you’ve got the talent or inspiration for it. I often wonder how those priorities became fixed in our school curriculum.

The actual reply I got from my student’s mother—who was responding to me when I asked her why her daughter had dropped band class in the middle of the school year—went as follows: “She isn’t committing time to practice and it has been a cause of stress for her. I don’t want her to do it because I want her to, she has to want to do it for herself. This isn’t the case so it’s probably best for her not to continue.”

Notice the subtext and assumptions in that reply. Music is a subject that we believe should be limited to those who are inspired to study it. She was essentially saying that she didn’t want to compel her daughter to do something that required hard work. Music, like math and other challenging subjects, takes good old-fashion hard work.

Now do you see how much we assume about the essentialness of math, music, and other subjects that we study? We assume that math is life-and-death mandatory and that music is optional. What about the many subjects—accounting, behavioral economics, social psychology, auto repair, cognitive science, graphic design, marketing, to name just a few—that we could teach young people but do not? It might be time examine our assumptions by turning our attention to the received curriculum and asking why we teach subject A but not subject B.

A logistics problem? Could instrumental music’s status as an elective boil down to a logistics problem? To study math, you need a book, some paper, a pencil, a calculator, perhaps a few other lightweight objects. To have a school band or orchestra, you need an (often large and somewhat expensive) instrument, a method book, sheet music, music stands, and a large room to fit all those players. In other words, math is an easy logistics problem. Music, just like auto shop, is a complicated one. And that’s one of the reasons that music, the most human of arts, that which has accompanied us in celebration and in despair from the earliest of times, is an elective in our schools.

The other reason—one I’ve written about several times before—is that you don’t really need to play an instrument any longer to have music in your life. Our ancestors had to make their own music. Now, with a few swipes of a finger or thumb, you can listen to anything ever recorded, from Bach to Beyonce. After all, why struggle to learn a musical instrument, why devote so much time over so many years, when it’s so easy to just sit back and be entertained by whatever you desire to hear at the moment? That’s a tough question, but one worth thinking about deeply.