D. Allen

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David Allen is a mathematician, graphic artist, writer, personal trainer, and video producer for-hire.  But, honestly, you'll be lucky if he blogs on any of these things.  He'll probably just tell you how his day is going (or how yours should be).

All Math is Quite Useless [SIC]

A few weeks ago, someone posted an article to my Facebook feed entitled

"Bill Gates is commissioning art to remind people why vaccines are important."

Before your mind begins to Rolodex through all the reasons you either hate or love vaccines, let me stop you.  This is about art, usefulness, and math--mostly math (with, perhaps, some literature sprinkled on the end). Definitely, however, this is not about vaccines.  You see, as soon as I started to look at this article, I began to wonder if a use (in this case, "reminding people") depreciates the artistic value of an object.  Furthering this notion, I came across the following while reading Oscard Wilde's forward to The Picture of Dorian Gray shortly after the aforementioned post was, well, posted:

"We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless."

Let me say, first, that I am not trying to shame an artist for taking the Gates' money.  While Mr. Wilde's overall sentiment is (I believe) correct, he is wrong on a point (or, at least, I am an overly pedantic fellow).  There is often art which needs no excuse to be made, but whose admiration, and therefore funding, is delayed (see: most important art).  Artists need to eat, and should do work like this in order to make that happen.  Often one must create the facsimile to fund real artistic progress (see: Mr. Brainwash, resp. Banksy).  But, regardless, these things have been rattling, nay, wrestling in  my mind with the infamous "I shouldn't have to learn this math--I'm never going to use it."

I used to hear this and try to explain to the declarer the wonderful uses of math.  I am here today, however, to tell you that that is a load of crap. Wait, no... OK, there are many wonderful uses of math.  None of these, however, are reasons why you should have to study math. 

You should study math because it is important to us culturally.

(This realization is largely thanks to a conversation I had with another grad student over some cheese and wine) I will blame the following sentence on Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, to whom I am currently listening: Math is all around you and affects almost every aspect of your life.  You know, like art.  And, you should study it.  You know, like you should study art.

It is funny, as often as I have heard uselessness used as a reason to hate on math classes, I never hear the same thing said about art classes (save for once, but let's ignore that).  This could be for one of two reasons:

(a) People really believe that knowledge of who created "Spiral Jetty" will come in handy (Jeopardy, perhaps), or

(b) Art classes are typically easier than math classes, and most people really just don't like difficult things.

Well, I admit, art classes should be tougher.  Art is hard in both theory and application (hey, like math!)--its study should be of aggregate difficulty.  Also, please let me offer you this consolation before you think me some mathocrat--math is taught so horribly that you have every reason to dislike it.

If we taught English like we taught math, we would only teach grammar, and never let kids experience literature.

Were that the case, you would probably consider the usefulness of language but never the beauty of it.  Possibly like how you think about math.