A reader writes:
Good morning from Nebraska. As a computer engineer I have definitely had my share of math classes. The classic question of “when am I ever going to need this?” doesn’t stop with Algebra. It continues well into the college curriculum. The best answer I ever got was from my discrete math professor. He said (and I agree) that we might never use it. But that’s not the point.
Learning new math concepts not only increases your problem-solving sophistication, it also exercises your ability to analyze and then solve problems. In my experience, he’s been absolutely right. I rarely use (or remember to use) any of the advance math I learned in undergrad. Heck, I don’t even use much of the math that I learned in high school and I’m a freaking engineer. I do, however, encounter problems everyday and rely on my learned ability to analyze the problem and find a solution. Giving students the option to eliminate math at such an early stage is not only going to impact their mathematical understanding, but also the problem-solving sophistication.
And just a little jab: how many students really use what they learned by reading and then analyzing Ethan Frome or The Great Gatsby? How are lit classes any more relevant to everyday use than math? It’s not necessarily the content of the subject that’s important, but rather the method and process for approaching and solving problems that is.
If there was ever a post to make me absolutely insane, this is it.
Replace every instance of “math” in your post with “reading.” If the post then infuriates you, you know how I feel. I haven’t had to write a paper about Gatsby’s green light since I was 18, but I recognize that the subject built fundamental cognitive and intellectual skills that I do use all the time.
If you want to re-imagine a relevant curriculum for mathematics instruction, I’m all for that. But, to eliminate math for a significant portion of young minds is absurd. Making it optional will result in many children opting out of math, goaded on by the shocking number of adult parents who feel that math is “hard” and “useless.”
Do all students need to take trigonometry and calculus? Of course not. But everyone should take statistics. Everyone should take basic finance. In the eighth grade, my idiot friends and I still thought we’d be rock guitarists and professional athletes. If we’d opted out of math at that point, we’d have been woefully unqualified in careers in science. By the time kids know what they want to do with their lives, they’re past the point of making up for gaps in their education.
And this is what whining about math always seems to miss: math education is not about math for math’s sake; it’s about science, technology, and engineering. In the 21st century, when computer illiteracy is tantamount to actual illiteracy, when biotechnological breakthroughs are helping us live longer and more productive lives, when the threat of climate change, fossil fuels, and stray asteroids become more and more unavoidable by the day, asking for a reprieve from learning something hard is tantamount to sabotaging our future.
Gary Rubenstein may be right that most students do not need to take algebra, calculus, or geometry (worthy as these topics are) unless they’re planning to go into a technical field. However, there is one type of math instruction that American high school students desperately need – and most aren’t getting it. It’s consumer math and basic financial literacy.
How to manage your checking and savings accounts. Understanding mortgages, home equity loans, school loans, car loans, payday loans, and other types of consumer loans. How to safely use credit cards. How to save for education and retirement (and why it’s a good idea to start early in life). Understanding sales, coupons, discount and reward programs from retailers. In other words, the kind of math needed to navigate everyday situations that involve money.
Many high schools do teach these classes, but they are not normally required for graduation. They probably should be. The benefits would be huge. For instance, if more Americans had the financial savvy to understand and avoid the funny mortgages that were being peddled during the early-to-mid 2000s, the housing crash might not have been as severe.
Update from a reader:
There is plenty of room for disagreement about Gary Rubinstein’s argument, but these readers don’t even address that argument! His whole point is that the way we teach math crams in facts at the expense of problem-solving skills, not that math is irrelevant. In other words, they dissenters basically agree with him.