1050: Forgot Algebra

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Jump to: navigation, search
Forgot Algebra
The only things you HAVE to know are how to make enough of a living to stay alive and how to get your taxes done. All the fun parts of life are optional.
Title text: The only things you HAVE to know are how to make enough of a living to stay alive and how to get your taxes done. All the fun parts of life are optional.


Megan, standing with Hairy, is an ex student of Miss Lenhart and she taunts her old algebra teacher, because she hasn't used algebra since she left school. This is a reflection of a common gripe among students: that they have no need to learn math because they assume they'll never use it after they graduate. Randall's argument is that you have the option to use what you learned in school or not. Lots of people use math after they graduate, lots of people use their music lessons, and others don't use anything they learned in school at all. However, Randall doesn't understand why someone would be proud of their own ignorance, especially since people do brag about things like being able to cook and speak other languages, which are also entirely non-essential, perhaps even more so than algebra. See "A Mathematician's Lament" by Paul Lockhart: https://www.maa.org/external_archive/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf

However, Megan is also wrong in that she likely does use basic mathematical calculations in everyday life, even if they're not in orderly lists of parameters ending with "solve for x." For example, to turn one's apartment into a ball pit like in 150: Grownups, one must calculate or at least estimate (another skill learned in math class) the floor space of the room, the desired depth for the balls to cover, the space occupied by one crate of balls, and the cost of such a crate. While the operations are basic arithmetic, the ability to recognize unknowns and sort them into a meaningful statement comes from algebra.

The title text states that technically you don't "need" to do anything but survive and pay your taxes (although, ironically, doing one's taxes can require quite a bit of algebra), and implies that math is one of the optional and fun parts of life.

This is one of the two comics where Miss Lenhart is both drawn and named, the first being 499: Scantron.


[Hairy is looking on as Megan takes her hands to her mouth and yells after Miss Lenhart who is walking away while looking back at her over her shoulder.]
Megan: Hey, Miss Lenhart! I forgot everything about algebra the moment I graduated, and in 20 years no one has needed me to solve anything for x.
Megan: I told you I'd never use it!
Megan: In your face!
[Caption below the panel:]
It's weird how proud people are of not learning math when the same arguments apply to learning to play music, cook, or speak a foreign language.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


Actually, I always use Megan's argument whenever I'm in World History Class.--Jimmy C (talk) 21:34, 14 November 2012 (UTC)

Yes, because what intelligent people did in the past when faced with complex decisions can have NO bearing on anything in my own life. 08:17, 10 January 2014 (UTC)
If history actually repeats itself if you don't study it, then the best way to study history is to not study it, because then it will happen to yourself and you will be able to experience it first hand! guess who (if you want to | what i have done) 17:12, 22 January 2024 (UTC)

It allways seems strange to me that there are places in the world where preparing your own meals is not an everyday task to most people. Living in Norway it just seems extremely decadent! 20:44, 30 August 2013 (UTC)

I don't think that by "learning to cook" he means to prepare food, but to do it well and to enjoy it. Many people can prepare very limited food, causing them to not enjoy cooking and to believe that they cannot cook. Theo (talk) 21:06, 30 August 2013 (UTC)
No, he meant "learning to cook". We learn math, not necessarily so we can enjoy it but so that we can function as a modern human being. You don't have to enjoy cooking, but by god's sake you should at least learn the basics. We can't all be generation Y, you know; things would cease to function. 08:17, 10 January 2014 (UTC)
I think the point is that being able to cook, play an instrument, or speak a foreign language is generally seen as positive even if it doesn't benefit the person judging (they aren't expecting to eat the cooking or need an interpreter). "I can do integral calculus" will not get you the same sort of reaction. 20:54, 18 January 2022 (UTC)

Fortunately for mathophiles, it appears that this sentiment fades with age. In an August 2013 Gallup survey of American adults, respondents were asked which school subject they considered most valuable in their daily lives, and Math took the top spot. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2013/09/math_viewed_as_most_valuable_s.html Frijole (talk) 23:39, 10 September 2013 (UTC)

A google search of "when am I ever going to use X?" reveals that "math" and "algebra" get tens of thousands of hits, physics gets hundreds, while just about everything else is under 100. I think the extreme dislike of math (edweek survey notwithstanding, and probably self-serving) is in a different league from what others have discussed here. The explanation should reflect. Jd2718 (talk) 03:16, 16 September 2013 (UTC)

It was a Gallup survey, and how can the choice of "math" be self-serving anyway?? It is an educational journal, for pete's sake! The only choices were school subjects.
My own reasoning is that people have an unnatural fear of math simply because it *is* a pure science, it *is* abstract. The idiotic thing is that people use math all the time, they just don't call it that. Trying to work out how many drinks you can buy and still have cab fare? Algebra, b*tches! 08:17, 10 January 2014 (UTC)

Counterpoint: Unlike music and foreign language, math is a required course throughout school, which must be infuriating for those who struggle with it. My belief for what are currently the core classes is that students should be taught the material that will help them "in real life" and in a variety of jobs, and probably a bit of extra knowledge beyond that; but the much more complex and abstract topics should be optional. ~AgentMuffin

Counter-counterpoint: You have to balance the 'need' for abstract topics with the advantage that young minds have in learning. Generally speaking, as you get older it becomes more difficult to learn new things. So the most advantageous time to learn those difficult/abstract topics is when your mind is (statistically) best capable of learning them.

Counter-counter-counterpoint: abstract topics are actually specifically the sorts of things that "young minds" (up through middle school, at least, and sometimes into high school) struggle to learn (or comprehend) more than more older minds. It's why teaching algebra to middle schoolers (in general and on average) is generally avoided. (Source: professional development as a middle school teacher) On an unrelated note, the depressing thing about this comic is that I have heard students make the same complaint (i.e. when am I ever going to need this) about music, cooking, AND speaking a foreign language. Who, me? (talk) 01:14, 19 January 2022 (UTC)

Is it weird that I do use algebra on a somewhat regular basis? Maybe once a month or so. Not even as a part of my job (which requires far less math than most people think). Even something like finding the percentage discount when you are just given the initial and final price is technically algebra. One of the weirdest things that happened on a date was a girl asking me to solve an algebra question. I feel like I even had a derivative come up at some point in my life. I'm definitely not getting into the argument of if math should be taught in schools in the way it currently is though. Brycemw (talk) 21:31, 23 April 2024 (UTC)