5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real World

Math is many students' most hated subject in school, the cause of untold nightmares and countless "I can't evens." And inevitably when dealing with a subject so abstract to their daily lives, many students will stand up and in a clear, precise voice bellow, "What will we ever use this for?"

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"My thesis statement is: Seriously, are you just jerking us around?"

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In some cases, there's an easy answer to their question. Algebra and word problems are used all the time by real people in the real world. Understanding percentages and exponents is necessary if you want to have even the beginning of a clue about personal finance. Statistics are useful for understanding games and other risks. And you'll be widely regarded as a mouth-breathing idiot if you wander the real world unable to read a graph.

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real World

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But many other math subjects are preposterously useless in real life and simply not encountered outside of careers in fairly specific fields. For many of those kids, these are things they will never use.

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real WorldJetta Productions/Photodisc/Getty Images
"In conclusion, fuck this noise."

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Just for the record, this isn't the rant of a bitter moron. I was really good at math in school; straight A's, AP calculus, the whole thing. That's why I feel qualified, as someone who's learned and forgotten it all, to explain which math subjects are actually completely useless for normal human beings.

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5
Long Division

Long division is a calculation technique where one number can be divided by another using nothing more than note paper and a tremendous amount of time. And despite all the horrible things that have happened to my brain since grade five, I basically still remember how to do it. You start at the left and pick the largest nominator that can fit in the regulator, then take the leftovers and add them to the next downmost digit of the dividule, then repeat. Right?

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Right, Mr. H?

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Note that I'm talking about the usefulness of long division specifically here. Everyone obviously has to understand how basic division works, as that comes up all the time in the real world, when dividing up apples among friends or whatever. But the only division you ever really need to do in the real world is with integers under 100, and that takes rote memorization really, not long division. So what good is long division?

What They Say This Is Used For:

Long division is meant for those occasions when we need to divide large numbers and we don't have a calculator at hand.

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Professions that commonly experience such situations include Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and this guy.

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What a Normal Human Being Might Actually Use This For:

Nothing.

Basically the only people who use long division now are fifth-grade teachers teaching long division to fifth graders. Long division was added to our math curriculum in a primitive era when people smoked for their health and calculators were rare. But that's obviously no longer the case; right now you probably have three or four devices within arm's reach capable of doing division.

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Calculator, laptop, yup. All set here. Hell, most modern plants can do division and play MP3s now.

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4
Geometric Proofs

Geometry can describe a pretty big area of study, so I'll clarify a bit. Basic geometry, like an understanding of points, sides, and angles, is pretty useful. As is basic trigonometry, which will come in handy if you do any kind of building or construction. And the Pythagorean theorem is a handy thing to have in your pocket.

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The only reason this all stands up is because some long-dead Greek dudes gave it permission to.

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But at some point in high school, you get into geometric proofs, comparing triangles to other triangles, and drawing tangents to circles, and a bunch of stuff that's all geared toward rebuilding geometric proofs that those long-dead Greek dudes had already figured out for us.

What They Say This Is Used For:

All of this stuff is super useful if you're an engineer. Actually, let's say mandatory. Yeah. I'd kind of like the guys we have building bridges to really "get" triangles, thanks.

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"No, Tony. Three sides. Yeah. Three. This is a doodle of Hello Kitty. No, that's OK. You're learning."

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Also, the technique of taking simple axioms and combining those into more complicated theorems is great training for more complicated mathematical proofs. This is useful if you want to continue your career in mathematics, which boy, man, are you sure you want to continue your career in mathematics?

What a Normal Human Being Might Actually Use This For:

Nothing.

Most people just don't encounter enough triangles in the wild to need to know if they're identical or not. And isn't this whole conceit of declaring two different triangles to be the same kind of, well, racist?

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Most triangles are actually excellent drivers.

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3
Logarithms

Logarithms are ... something. Loggy? Rhythmmy?

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Sure.

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I'm not being glib here; I'm really not entirely sure what they are. They're a weird little black hole in my knowledge of mathematics. Every time I look logarithms up and figure out what they are, that knowledge immediately sprays out the other side of my head like a gunshot wound. For the purpose of this column I looked them up again, and I can happily report that they're basically the inverse of exponents, except not quite, and, uh, fuck, they're gone.

What They Say This Is Used For:

All sorts of things, apparently. Logs of base 10 are useful in a number of areas of engineering. Logs of base 2 show up all over the place in computer science. And logs of base e, which is, uh ... fuck it ... are apparently super important, with e widely being considered one of the most beautiful numbers in the universe.

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real WorldStacey Lynn Payne/iStock/Getty Images
Also the most ballin' number in the universe.

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What a Normal Human Being Might Actually Use This For:

Nothing.

The only time I can think of that I've ever come across logarithms in the wild is in understanding the scales of some fairly specific graphs. The Richter scale that we use for measuring earthquakes is logarithmic, with every increase of one on the scale representing an increase by a factor of 10 in an earthquake's power. But you don't really need to "get" logarithms to comprehend that, so I don't know. Aside from the slightly distressing knowledge that I'm missing out on apparently one of the most beautiful things known to man, I haven't really observed any downsides to a life without understanding logarithms.

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real WorldMike Powell/Digital Vision/Getty Images
There's enough raw beauty in regular logs for me.

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2
Polynomials

Polynomials are expressions where a variable is combined with coefficients and exponents in all sorts of exciting ways.

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real World
This is exciting. You should be semi-erect when reading this.

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Yet despite their thrilling nature, polynomials (and their quadratic cousins) represent a pretty big roadblock for many students in high school, and everything related to them, including graphing, reducing, or just looking at them, is enough to cause a non-trivial number of people to break out into a rash.

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real WorldGeek3 via Wikimedia Commons
The rate at which people become stricken by polynomial-induced rashes can probably be graphed as a polynomial, actually.

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What They Say This Is Used For:

Really, polynomial relationships are fairly simple equations that show up all the time in studies of natural systems, so anyone considering a career in science, economics, statistics, or engineering will need to have a pretty good handle on what the deal is with these things.

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"OK, no, that's ... a picture of a little man humping a function? Tony, were your parents the same person?"

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What a Normal Human Being Might Actually Use This For:

Nothing.

I cannot for the life of me think of the last time I've seen a polynomial equation in the real world.

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real WorldRiseAboveDesign/iStock/Getty Images
This almost never happens.

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And although I'm undoubtedly surrounded by polynomial equations everywhere I go, they're all but invisible to me. They don't seem to need my help being factored at all. I guess natural polynomials in the wild factor themselves? Or each other?

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real World
I'm pretty sure that's how they reproduce.

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1
Calculus

Calculus is the study of things that change, slopes of curves, and the accumulation of very, very small things. No, smaller than that. It involves the study of series, limits, infinite series, derivatives, integrals, and a whole bunch of super, super important things that I feel a little bit embarrassed to have forgotten completely about so that I could make room in my brain for other things.

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Dad jokes now, mainly.

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What They Say This Is Used For:

Everything. Essentially every aspect of modern science and engineering is underpinned by calculus. These magic electric word boxes I'm communicating to you with? Calculus.

The porn, too. That's also calculus.

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"Thanks, calculus!"

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In practice, this means that if you want to pursue any type of career in science or engineering, you'll definitely need to know at least the basics of calculus, and probably a bit beyond that.

What a Normal Human Being Might Actually Use This For:

Nothing.

It hurts to say it, because I used to actually be pretty good at calculus. In university I could rely on my calculus classes to boost my grade point average, which, in an era when my interests leaned more toward lager beer and Mario Kart, was a valuable thing indeed.

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real WorldFuse/Getty Images
"Hey, don't you have class now?"
"Yeah, but they hold those things like three times a week. I'll catch the next one."
"You ... you know it's not the same class each time?"
"Blurg?"

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And although my personal trajectory, this sad descent into the joke-spewing simpleton you see now, could probably be captured quite brilliantly if I still understood calculus, I'd kind of prefer not dwelling on that, thanks.

5 Math Lessons You Don't Really Need in the Real WorldFuse/Getty Images
"Hey, don't you have class now?"
"I've skipped so many that I'll have no idea what they're talking about. Makes more sense to just read the text and catch up."
"Smart."
-plays Mario Kart for 18 hours, does not read text, does not pass class, becomes sad comedy writer-
"What the? Dang."


Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and encourages you to stay in school. Join him on Facebook or Twitter to learn more from his mistakes.

For classes schools actually should have, check out 16 Lessons You Wish They'd Taught In School and 21 Lessons You Wish They'd Taught in School.

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