There is yet another reason why mathematics is considered special and one of human kind’s greatest intellectual accomplishments.
The orderly, precise, succinct, and logical nature of mathematics and its abstract nature has bestowed the subject with a ‘supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere’ (Russell, 1918) whose aesthetic appeal is not only admired by mathematicians but also by a multitude of others. Problems of a mathematical nature – from those driving cutting-edge research to those of the recreational kind – have not only offered cognitive challenge but also enjoyment, satisfaction, and wonder.
Many are those who prize mathematics not only for its utility but also because they see in it an intellectual pursuit of the highest order as well as one of man’s greatest cultural achievements – one that has had a substantial effect on the way we think, reason and do not only in other obvious spheres such as the natural sciences (Temple Bell, 1952) but also in philosophy, religion, art, literature, and aesthetics (Kline, 1954).
Mathematics is not only about numbers, geometric shapes, variables, functions, and so on and so forth, but it is also about man and his progress through the ages as all these entities are pure abstractions that only exist in humanity’s collective mind (Devlin, 2000). Thus the history of mathematics is the history of man’s progress throughout the ages. The world would not be the same without the immense contribution made by mathematics.
The undoubted utility of the products of mathematics and the unmatched elegance of the sublime process through which these products are created have made it in the eyes of many an indispensable tool, a means of communication par excellence, a productive way of thinking, and, a crowning cultural achievement.
And therein lie the reasons why it is universally held that mathematics should be taught to all. So to go back to our original question – why should all pupils learn mathematics? – the answer, in short, is that it is a discipline that is useful as a medium of communication and as a tool, as a way of reasoning, and, as a part of our culture that has had a profound effect on civilisation.
Mathematics teaches the value of precision and accuracy, develops logical thinking, instils perseverance and effort, inspires the imagination, lifts the creative spirit, provides enjoyment, and, encourages the development of a love of the beauty that can be found in real and abstract objects. And it is with these reasons in mind that teachers should approach the teaching of mathematics – they need to ensure that pupils learn the mathematics that they will need in their: adult lives, place of work, further studies, and/or, other subjects in the curriculum.
They also need to help pupils understand how mathematics can serve as a powerful means of communication, how it has impacted other spheres of knowledge, and how it has profoundly influenced civilisation through the ages (Cockcroft, 1982).
A far cry from learning mathematics simply because one might accidently buy a mobile phone without a calculator!
Disclaimer: Opinions and thoughts expressed within this article do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Malta.