I had a fun conversation on the airplane* the other day with the two high school English teachers sitting on either side of me. Most people, when they hear that I do sciency stuff a variation on the "what is it good for" question, and I find myself going down that dark windy road to justify the tax and tuition money that pays my salary.
But this was a fun variant of that question: "What do I tell my students when they want to know why they have to study math?" a.k.a. when will I ever use this stuff?
Being English teachers, I got to explain things to them in terms of english literacy, which was fun. In order to survive (read road signs, buy groceries, etc.) one doesn't need to read much beyond an elementary school level. Similarly for math (basic arithmatic to balance a checkbook, file taxes, count change and tip).
Being able to read a newspaper (middle school to high school level reading, depending on the newspaper) makes one an informed citizen. Having read some of the great works of literature may improve one's quality of life. Understanding ratios, large numbers, rudimentary logic, some probability and stats, (all topics that can be taught in middle and high school) also makes one an informed citizen.
Does the fact that polling numbers for an election switching between 51/49 and 49/51 from week to week mean that one candidate is surging ahead one week only to fall behind the next, or can we say the fluctuation is due to polling error, in spite of the media hype?
When we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on foreign aid, is that a lot of money? How much is it per capita of where we are spending the money? How much is it as a percentage of our budget?
Knowing more advanced math (and living with a man who is a walking repository of intermittently useful pieces of data) improves my quality of life. Being able to do an order of magnitude calculation of the volume of the oceans' waters is sometimes surprisingly useful. But I admit, most high school students would find me strange, if not nerdy (GASP!).
It was also nice to hear the English teachers talk about why high school English is taught the way it is. I remember it being a long stream of reading about whale blubber ("Moby Dick") and a competition to find the most esoteric yet relevant symbolism in "The Great Gatsby" or "Macbeth".
Their explanation for this inscrutable 4 year long exercise was simple. Having the cultural grounding to be able to read the words "Draco Malfoy" and know from the name that this is a villian is important. It adds to my quality of life when reading a book or watching a movie, and it does so in a way that I don't even notice anymore.
Was some of it over the top, and irrelevant to my life path? Sure, but so was the AP calculus class of these women took 10 years ago. It was a good exchange of perspectives.
*My last commute for 2 WHOLE WEEKS!!! :)