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Do We Really Need All This Math?

Also on the editorial pages of the Saturday Post, a professor emeritus of mathematics asks an excellent question: Do we really need all this math?.

How much math do you really need in everyday life? Ask yourself that — and also the next 10 people you meet, say, your plumber, your lawyer, your grocer, your mechanic, your physician or even a math teacher.

Unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everyday life. That courses such as “Quantitative Reasoning” improve critical thinking is an unsubstantiated myth. All the mathematics one needs in real life can be learned in early years without much fuss. Most adults have no contact with math at work, nor do they curl up with an algebra book for relaxation.

As someone who spent many years trying to market Algebra and Geometry to many students for whom the experience would be of little value, I must confess… I agree.

Kids certainly need to develop a basic number sense and some basic arithmetical skills during their time in school, especially how to efficiently using a calculator.

And their lives would be far better off if they graduated understanding the fundamental concepts behind probability and statistics to help them cope with the deceptive practices behind the way most polling is used, as well as the fraud run by many governments known as the lottery.

But for most students the four years of math courses they stumble through in high school, not to mention struggling with such incredibly useless skills as dividing fractions in earlier grades, is valuable time that could be far better used in their young lives.

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8 Comments

  1. Mark

    Agree 100%. For 99% of the population, things like trig and calculus should be replaced by figuring out how interest rates work (and why to avoid huge credit card balances), balancing your checkbook, understanding how to read and analyze data (as you indicated), understanding loan amortizations, and so on.

  2. Arno van Asseldonk

    The answer to “How much math do you really need in everyday life” depends on the kind of problems you have to deal with in everyday life. For most people a basic knowledge of arithmetic and some knowledge of calculating areas and volumes will possibly suffice.
    We have to keep in mind, however, that the mathematics tought in secondary schools has nothing to do with the science of mathematics. As the late Richard Skemp remarked in his well known Psychology of Learning Mathematics, the mathematics tought in secondary schools merely teaches mathematical thought, but not mathematical thinking. The science of mathematics as such has indeed little relevance to everyday life. It are its applications, however, that make the relevance to everyday life. How many people would know, for instance, that the music being played on a CD sounds so perfecty right without errors, because these errors are corrected by using error correcting codes, which theory is based on number theoretical (and therefore mathematical) principles? Even the PC that I use for typing this message owes its existence to mathematical principles. Unfortunately these applications are too often obscured by the emphasis on the teaching of mathematical techniques, so one need not be surprised that only few people are able to obtain an appreciation for mathematics as such. Mathematics has always been important to other exact sciences and engineering sciences, but it has also become important to the social and medical sciences and economics, but for those people who do not work in such areas this may not seem very obvious. It is therefore of paramount importance that we do not only teach mathematical skills in secondary schools, but that we also teach our pupils the richness of the several applications of mathematics in everyday life.

  3. I agree and I especially agree that the upper grades should be getting into statistics and probability!

  4. JP

    Couldn’t this same argument be extended to any subject beyond about 9th grade? How often does a plumber use the Ideal Gas Law? Or how often does the lawyer call on the skills he learned in music class? Does your grocer write research papers? How do the details of the XYZ Affair apply to the daily job of your physician?

  5. Dave

    There’s some literary sleight of hand in discussions like this. Your quote says that “literature, history, politics and music” have relevance to every day life and that math (or higher-level math) doesn’t. I think we need to define relevance.

    If we say that politics matters every day because I am a subject of my nation’s and state’s and city’s governments, then math definitely matters every day, because I’m subject to the laws of Physics and the prices of goods and…well, everything’s math.

    I’d argue that politics, literature, history, music, and math are all in the same boat here: there are a few tidbits here and there in lots of fields that you tend to use on a daily basis; usually they’re the extremely basic fundamental ideas from those fields. But, I don’t vote every day, I don’t read from a book every day, I don’t play a musical instrument every day, and I don’t solve a system of equations every day.

    I’m kind of fumbling with my words here, but I think you get the idea: today’s students won’t use what they learn in Quantitative Reasoning every day, but they won’t use what they learn in U.S. Government or P.E. or Chemistry 2 or English Literature every day, either.

    • Tim

      Dave, I agree with you. Math is not the only subject in the K12 curriculum that lacks relevance to most students. It’s also not the only one that we either go overboard on or teach poorly.

      With the narrow emphasis on reading and math fostered by our standardized testing culture, we are losing the concept of a liberal education (hope that term doesn’t offend tea party folks :-), the idea that students should be getting broad exposure to many different fields of study and allowed to explore to some greater degree with those that interest them. High school especially should be a time for exploration rather than being pressured to decide on a career (which in our district seems to start around 5th grade).

  6. Yes! I’ve long thought that if we were really concerned with educating a voting public, we’d swap probability and statistics for trig. I wonder how much of our current math curricula were informed by the post-Sputnik paranoia inspired math and science curriculum?

  7. Schatzl

    I couldn’t possibly agree more! I am in highschool right now and can’t stand math. I didn’t do well during the school year, because I was focused on the important things like computers (programming), English, Spanish, and religion class (Catholicism). I spent my summer in front of a computer doing a summer course. 6 hours a day every day. The window in my second story bedroom is looking pretty damn tempting right about now. I have been thinking about the priesthood and realized that if someone has a good idea of what they want to do, then they should have training for that, right? Wrong! We are forced to .earn things that we don’t need and never will need. Teachers focus too much on test grades and not enough on the student’s interests and future. All they care about is which country gets a higher grade on math tests. I don’t plan on using Math during my time in the Seminary, and I don’t plan on thinking about trig for the rest on my life.

    Pax tecum,
    Schatzl

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