Tuesday, October 26, 2010

This Idea Would Add Up For a Lot of People

Reading the op-ed page of the newspaper at lunch today, I came across a column that resonated with me. Here's a sample:
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.
The interesting part of all this is that the column was written by, of all people, a retired math professor. G.V. Ramanathan has also taught statistics and computer science at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus (and may still be teaching in semi-retirement, as he holds professor emeritus status with the school). He goes on:
Those who do love math and science have been doing very well. Our graduate schools are the best in the world. This "nation at risk" has produced about 140 Nobel laureates since 1983 (about as many as before 1983).

As for the rest, there is no obligation to love math any more than grammar, composition, curfew or washing up after dinner. Why create a need to make it palatable to all and spend taxpayers' money on pointless endeavors without demonstrable results or accountability?
Ramanathan makes a good point, as far as I'm concerned; there's a big debate going on as to whether high schools need to prepare their entire populations for college, or if some students should be steered towards a more vocational track. But it appears that everyone takes four years of math now, and for those who take Algebra I in eighth grade (which seems to be nearly everyone these days), that means they'll be spending part of their senior years dealing with calculus...and if we're asking if everyone needs this much math, then we really have to ask if everyone needs calculus (a class which I managed to avoid entirely in my pursuit of two-and-a-half college degrees).

Read the whole thing; it's interesting to see someone in academia who understands that his discipline may not be for everyone.

Questions of the day: How much math did you take in high school? And should everyone have to take four years of math? Please "add" your response to the comment page.

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