I recently explained how parents can put their children on a math track that will lead to at least one year of calculus in high school.1 I ignored the vital question, "Why bother?" In what follows, I'll give you some reasons to bother—reasons, that is, why calculus should be part of your plans for your child.

You may never have studied calculus yourself. You may think of it as a subject only for eggheads, disconnected from real life. I understand why you might think that way and certainly don't mean to suggest that anyone who doesn't study calculus is a failure or a bad person! But I would urge you to consider the following arguments carefully, to make sure you reach an informed decision. The stakes may be higher than you realize.

What in the World Is Calculus, Anyway?

What is calculus?2 In a nutshell, it is the collection of mathematical tools used for studying quantities that change and their rates of change. Where are such quantities in the world? Everywhere. For example:

  • The acceleration (rate of change in velocity) of a space shuttle
  • The temperature of a pot on a stove—or a nuclear reactor's core or a computer's processor chip—as it heats up or cools down
  • The speed of blood flow through a coronary artery
  • The electrical current through a light bulb or a circuit board
  • Wind speeds in a hurricane
  • The loads on a structure—whether house, bridge, or baseball stadium—after a heavy snowfall
  • A factory's production rate, defect rate, rate of consumption of raw materials, rate of expenditure on labor, and financing rate on inventory
  • Drug absorption rates
  • Disease transmission rates
  • Rate of curvature of a highway exit or of a letter in a font

Such phenomena are so widespread, in fact, that calculus is easily the most widely applied branch of math. So, why do I think you should include calculus in your child's educational plans?

Reason #1: Options

Many fields are closed to students who can't pass calculus at or near the beginning of their college career. In short, if you're not up to taking calculus, you can rule out any career in engineering, computer science, the natural sciences, economics, finance, or mathematics.

Not only will you have fewer college majors to choose from, but you'll also have fewer colleges to choose from, and possibly less financial aid. The fact that a student is taking calculus in his senior year in high school is a big plus for college admissions and merit-based aid. Having one year of calculus success under your belt and being enrolled in Calculus II when you apply to college in your senior year is an even bigger plus.

Reason #2: Guidance

Calculus is the first taste of real mathematics that most students encounter in their education. As a result, many students who "like math" all the way through grade school and into high school suddenly find themselves disliking calculus. "But this is so different! I thought I liked math." Conversely, some students who didn't "like math" before calculus suddenly find the subject taking on new interest.

This has an important practical consequence. No one should decide on a career in a math-intensive field, or rule out such a career, based on his experience with math before he gets to calculus. And that means that the sooner the student reaches calculus, the better, as it can be such a crucial guidepost concerning his future.

Reason #3: A Head Start

The young person who takes calculus in high school can sometimes place out of having to take the first semester or two of calculus in college. For the student who plans to major in a calculus-intensive field, this can help him get into advanced coursework much more quickly than would otherwise be possible. In such a field, the first semesters of calculus are prerequisites for virtually all higher-level courses.