Calculus is taught wrong, and is often wrong

The high point of most people’s college math is The Calculus. Typically this is a weeder course that separates the science-minded students from the rest. It determines which students are admitted to medical and engineering courses, and which will be directed to english or communications — majors from which they can hope to become lawyers, bankers, politicians, and spokespeople (the generally distrusted). While calculus is very useful to know, my sense is that it is taught poorly: it is built up on a year of unnecessary pre-calculus and several shady assumptions that were not necessary for the development, and that are not generally true in the physical world. The material is presented in a way that confuses and turns off many of the top students — often the ones most attached to the reality of life.

The most untenable assumption in calculus teaching, in my opinion, are that the world involves continuous functions. That is, for example, that at every instant in time an object has one position only, and that its motion from point to point is continuous, defining a slow-changing quantity called velocity. That is, every x value defines one and only one y value, and there is never more than a small change in y at the limit of a small change in X. Does the world work this way? Some parts do, others do not. Commodity prices are not really defined except at the moment of sale, and can jump significantly between two sales a micro-second apart. Objects do not really have one position, the quantum sense, at any time, but spread out, sometimes occupying several positions, and sometimes jumping between positions without ever occupying the space in-between.

These are annoying facts, but calculus works just fine in a discontinuous world — and I believe that a discontinuous calculus is easier to teach and understand too. Consider the fundamental law of calculus. This states that, for a continuous function, the integral of the derivative of changes equals the function itself (nearly incomprehensible, no?) Now consider the same law taught for a discontinuous group of changes: the sum of the changes that take place over a period equals the total change. This statement is more general, since it applies to discrete and continuous functions, and it’s easier to teach. Any idiot can see that this is true. By contrast, it takes weeks of hard thinking to see that the integral of all the derivatives equals the function — and then it takes more years to be exposed to delta functions and realize that the statement is still true for discrete change. Why don’t we teach so that people will understand? Teach discrete first and then smooth as a special case where the discrete changes happen at a slow rate. Is calculus taught this way to make us look smart, or because we want this to be a weeder course?

Because most students are not introduced to discrete change, they are in a very poor position  to understand, or model, activities that are discreet, like climate change or heart rate. Climate only makes sense year to year, as day-to-day behavior is mostly affected by seasons, weather, and day vs night. We really want to model the big picture and leave out the noise by considering each day or year as a whole, keeping track of the average temperature for noon on September 21, for example. Similarly with heart rate, the rate has no meaning if measured every microsecond; it’s only meaning is as a measure of the time between beats. If we taught calculus in terms of discrete functions, our students would be in a better place to deal with these things, and in a better place to deal with total discontinuous behaviors, like chaos and fractals, an important phenomena when dealing with economics, for example.

A fundamental truth of quantum mechanics is that there is no defined speed and position of an object at any given time. Students accept this, but (because they are used to continuous change) they come to wonder how it is that over time energy is conserved. It’s simple, quantum motion involves a gross discrete changes in position that leaves energy conserved by the end, but where an item goes from here to there without ever having to be in the middle. This helps explain the old joke about Heisenberg and his car.

Calculus-based physics is taught in terms of limits and the mean value theorem: that if x is the position of a thing at any time, t then the derivative of these positions, the velocity, will approach ∆x/∆t more and more as ∆x and ∆t become more tightly defined. When this is found to be untrue in a quantum sense, the remnant of the belief in it hinders them when they try to solve real world problems. Normal physics is the limit of quantum physics because velocity is really a macroscopic ratio of difference in position divided by macroscopic difference in time. Because of this, it is obvious that the sum of these differences is the total distance traveled even when summed over many simultaneous paths. A feature of electromagnetism, Green’s theorem becomes similarly obvious: the sum effect of a field of changes is the total change. It’s only confusing if you try to take the limits to find the exact values of these change rates at some infinitesimal space.

This idea is also helpful in finance, likely a chaotic and fractal system. Finance is not continuous: just because a stock price moved from $1 to $2 per share in one day does not mean that the price was ever $1.50 per share. While there is probably no small change in sales rate caused by a 1¢ change in sales price at any given time, this does not mean you won’t find it useful to consider the relation between the sales of a product. Though the details may be untrue, the price demand curve is still very useful (but unjustified) abstraction.

This is not to say that there are not some real-world things that are functions and continuous, but believing that they are, just because the calculus is useful in describing them can blind you to some important insights, e.g. of phenomena where the butterfly effect predominates. That is where an insignificant change in one place (a butterfly wing in China) seems to result in a major change elsewhere (e.g. a hurricane in New York). Recognizing that some conclusions follow from non-continuous math may help students recognize places where some parts of basic calculus allies, while others do not.

Dr. Robert Buxbaum (my thanks to Dr. John Klein for showing me discrete calculus).

5 thoughts on “Calculus is taught wrong, and is often wrong

  1. Willie Johnson

    Calculus is definitely taught wrong. That’s because the proof of the limit, its most seminal principle upon which it is built, is wrong. No matter how academics might try to convince both you and themselves that the delta epsilon proof of the limit is correct and rigorously defines the calculus is just wrong. Period. The delta epsilon proof does NOT prove the existence of the derivative as a limit. It is just a very very good approximation. By definition it can NEVER BE EXACT!!!!. Only really really really really close.

    The reason why we get an exact value has nothing to do with the “closeness” with which we may obtain a “close” epsilon given a prescribed delta.. The best proof is simply shrinking the secant to the tangent. This is actually a proof. Not an exemplification.

    What gets completely lost in all of this is that the calculus is based upon Cartesian coordinates. Points along the sine and cosine. x and y are still the cosine and sine respectively and must be treated as such.

    The reason why we get an exact value of the derivative as limit is because we do indeed force x, the cosine, to go to zero. Not approach. REACH zero. Not in some abstract sense but literally, x does and MUST go to zero. In so doing the sagitta or versine or negative x goes to 1. There is no division by zero since x = the cosine and (1- cosine=versine=sagitta=-x. Thus when the cosine=x=0 then the versine=sagitta=-x=1. This is the basis of the limit.

    Read all the details in in the book, the Sagitta Key by Willie Johnson at

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  4. Michael Livshits

    Ho-hum, here we go again, “infinitesimal space,” what the hell is it?! You may be ready for my article at and what V.A. Rokhlin thought about limits: By the way, I gave a talk at Wayne State on 2010, here are the slides, in case you missed it: I hope you will go beyond complaining and do something to improve the teaching of calculus.


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