How much math do we need?

How much math do we really need in everyday life? Most people get by happily with very little, writes G.V. Ramanathan, professor emeritus of mathematics, statistics and computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in a Washington Post column.

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.

Math and science lovers are doing very well, Ramanathan writes. But there’s no need for everyone 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?

I don’t think math education is being sold as an aid to supermarket shopping or a fun hobby for all. (I am married to a man who uses math to analyze every financial decision; it is a hobby for him. But he is not “all.”) The STEM push is about keeping career doors open for young people who may want to pursue technical, scientific or business careers.

Is math oversold? Could we limit math remediation — a big hurdle for many community college students — by requiring less math knowledge?

About Joanne

Comments

  1. A friend of mine asked his father, a professor of Civil Engineering who also worked in the field (literally) and consulted, how often he used Calculus outside the classroom and he said: “once”. Voters would make better decions if more people took and remembered Differential Equations, but the same could be said of Introductory Microeconomics or Evolutionary Biology. Microbiology applies to everyday life as often as does Algebra I.

    The basic premise of the State-monopoly school system, that society benefits when the State empowers experts to decide what everyone “should” know, relative to a policy environment in which each member of the population decides for himself what knowledge is important, is shaky and fundamentally undemocratic, seems to me.

  2. Homeschooling Granny says:

    I think citizens need some understanding of statistics and probability, lest they be manipulated by their use and abuse.

  3. TWS Garrison says:

    Math has just as much relevance in most people’s everyday lives as literature, history, politics and music—that is to say, little to none. They are fun and important, but not on a practical daily basis. It’s been seven years since I proved a theorem or played a symphony. I schedule my employees’ work and drive a forklift every day. “Relevance to everyday life” has little to do with what one learns in an academic setting. Nor should it.

  4. I agree that we don’t need math, but surely the conclusion is that most jobs don’t need college, rather than taking math out of college.

  5. Given the problems facing many families: foreclosures, often partially rooted in families taking out mortgages they had no business taking-out because they fundamentally did not understand algebra… basic investing & saving and being able to compare rates, flat costs, compounding, etc… political decisions that are often based off statistics, polling data (and manipulation thereof)… I think the case can be made that we need more math, not less… Algebra and basic statistics and probability. No, not everyone needs pre-calculus and calculus… but I don’t think anyone is saying that… Joanne is right that a big push for STEM is so that students do not prematurely cut them out of the possibility of studying more technologically advanced disciplines… for high school graduation, proficiency in algebra and stats/probability would probably be sufficient.

    And Malcolm: a prof of civil engineering who is practicing his/her discipline and consulting… and only used calculus once outside the classroom? BULLSH*T. At least try to make your make-believe anecdotes plausible. Either you are lying for effect, or your friend is exaggerating and you were gullible enough to believe it.

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    Prof.

    First, how effective are these educational creams and gels [ie. math education reform]?

    This is a good question. A fairly good answer is, “not very.” One could provide a slightly more nuanced answer, but “not very” is pretty close to truth. I think a good followup question would be, “Is this because we don’t know what changes to make, know but choose not to make them, or know and can’t make them?”

    His second question is the more emotionally charged of the two:

    How much math do you really need in everyday life?

    The problem with this sort of question is that you often don’t realize that a tool might help you if you don’t even know that the tool exists. I see this at work all the time (NOTE: I’m an engineer, so it is probably more pronounced where I work, but I suspect that the case is general). You *CAN* blunder your way through to a poor solution, but knowing a given technique often results in a much easier/simpler/cleaner solution.

    I will suggest that many people arrange their lives so as to not need very much math. This is quite rational behavior, but not neccesarily optimal. Sigh.

    I don’t expect the average amount of math knowledge in this country to increase any time soon. But I’m also kinda sad that the idea that we should maybe just give up on trying makes sense.

    -Mark Roulo

  7. (Jab): “….a prof of civil engineering who is practicing his/her discipline and consulting… and only used calculus once outside the classroom? BULLSH*T. At least try to make your make-believe anecdotes plausible. Either you are lying for effect, or your friend is exaggerating and you were gullible enough to believe it.”

    Or it’s true. A lot of engineering is “off the shelf”. I relate the story as I heard it. The friend who told me the story had no reason to lie. Do you suppose G.V. Ramanathan is lying?

    I enjoy teaching Math. My 8th grade students can do this:

    …Find all t such that 187^^t gives a remainder of 12 when divided by 41 and a remainder of 25 when divided by 47…

    but I have no illusions that they will ever use it, unless they get involved in code cracking or writing error-correctng code. It’s just for fun. If they’d rather surf, then they should be surfing. That applies to a lot of life, also: it keeps you in shape.

  8. Stacy in NJ says:

    I may be mistaken but aren’t we importing qualified engineers from India and Asia because we don’t have enough to satisfy our needs domestically? Even during a period of 10% unemployement? Perhaps fewer people would be unemployed if they had a better math educations.

    While I don’t think everyone or even most people need higher level math (above basic algebra and geometry), I’m pretty sure that the math education many of our average and even more capable students receive is subpar.

  9. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    “I may be mistaken but aren’t we importing qualified engineers from India and Asia because we don’t have enough to satisfy our needs domestically?”

    That’s not why we’re importing them. They’re able to work for wages that are impossible for domestic engineers.

  10. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    One segment of the population that needs math, but doesn’t realize that fact, is the population of educators (not counting the math/science second career teachers).

    Most people in the education world don’t seem to understand what “average” in the mathematical sense means, or that it’s impossible for every student to attend Hahvad and MIT. Why do you think that there’s so much resistance from this population to SAT scores? It’s because many believe that every kid is above average and that we need alternative assessments to prove just that.

    These people also believe that if you cherry pick a bunch of easy questions and everyone scores over 90% then that means that they all understand 90% of the subject matter.

  11. I may be mistaken but aren’t we importing qualified engineers from India and Asia because we don’t have enough to satisfy our needs domestically?

    Not true at all, there are plenty of qualified engineers in the US, the corporations just don’t want to pay them a decent wage.

  12. Mark Roulo says:

    …there are plenty of qualified engineers in the US…

    There are plenty of *credentialled* engineers in the US. Many of them are borderline incompetent (as are many of the ones off-shore … I don’t think that the foreign engineers are any better, on average, than the American ones). I’ve been interviewing from this pool off-and-on for a good decade now (as a senior engineer sort of person, not as a manager). These “plenty of qualified” US engineers don’t seem to be applying to work at either of the companies I’ve been with, and both pay fairly well. I’ll note, also, that it isn’t often the case that we interview good people, make job offers and are rejected because of a too low salary. This does happen, but rarely. Much more often we can’t find people that we want to make offers to at all.

    I don’t have a lot of suggestions. I was recently down at GATech interviewing and went through a “resume book” that the school set up for my company. I believe that it listed every graduating student who wished to include a resume (and some who weren’t graduating, but who were looking for an internship position for 2011). ¾ of them were foreign. If the kids in school are mostly foreign, then that is what the talent pool will look like.

    The big problem is that there just aren’t enough talented engineers to go around, period. I’m quite sure that if the average non-manager engineer salary was $200K things would be better — more native-born Americans would go into the field, but also there would be fewer jobs to fill as some projects wouldn’t make economic sense at that level of pay. But I don’t think this works … many of these engineering projects *CAN* be done offshore … and many can be done by foreign companies with foreign employees.

    I do wonder what level of pay would make engineering attractive to Americans. My experience in the SF bay area is that a non-managerial engineer can be making in the low 6-figures after maybe 10 years of work. I don’t see a lot of other careers with this sort of earnings potential. Is the problem pay? Or is the problem that engineering is tough to learn (much of which is that the math is tough to learn) and the number of people who both *CAN* and *WILL* do it is pretty limited?

    -Mark Roulo

  13. I may be mistaken but aren’t we importing qualified engineers from India and Asia because we don’t have enough to satisfy our needs domestically?

    Roulo, you’re an idiot.

  14. Mark Roulo says:

    Roulo, you’re an idiot.

    This is what is usually called non-constructive criticism.

    Could you elaborate just a bit?

    -Mark Roulo

  15. The greater point is that you don’t know how much math you need until you’ve actually chosen your career. A child may have ideas about what they want to be, but you don’t really know until years later. If you don’t start taking math until then, it’s essentially too late. By allowing large numbers of students to not take math beyond a low level, we are effectively cutting them off from a large number of possible career paths – science, medicine, etc. – and severely restricting their options later in life.

    Not to mention that a better understanding of mathematics and statistics would help keep people from being taken in by charlatans. With decisions effecting the lives of millions being made based on often atrociously bad mathematics, it would be nice if more people had the necessary background to discern the bs.

  16. (Mark Roulo) “You *CAN* blunder your way through to a poor solution, but knowing a given technique often results in a much easier/simpler/cleaner solution.”

    I’ve seen too many engineers take the easy route by avoiding the hard math and either going with an oversimplified model and/or by implementing a variety of solutions or fixes and assuring management and the customer that such-and-such a thing should help (without being able to quantify it). To me, the ability to quantify and optimize is the difference between an engineer and a hobbyist.

    Recently my management temporarily assigned me to a group to help out with a thermodynamics issue they were having. For weeks the group had claimed that the system we were trying to fix could not be mathematically modeled with any accuracy and were trying to apply solutions without being able to quantify their effectiveness. It turned out that no one had bothered to open a thermodynamics text book or to do the math. Within a week I had a flexible mathematical model that yielded results within 10 to 15% of reality.

    In short, I know a number of engineers who use surprisingly little math in their line of work. The problem is that their work is inferior because of it.

  17. (Obi): ” By allowing large numbers of students to not take math beyond a low level, we are effectively cutting them off from a large number of possible career paths – science, medicine, etc. – and severely restricting their options later in life.”

    Try:”…By allowing large numbers of students not to take ___ (fill in the blank) beyond a low level, we’re effectively cutting them off from a large number of possible career paths…” This is true for just about any subject you can name. Why 12 years of English and not 3 years of four different languages, for example? Why only one or two years of shop class?

    By confining kids to classrooms from age 6 through 18, we’re stunting them physically and cutting them off from outdoor careers. By enforcing child labor laws and minimum wage laws, we’re depriving them of practical vocational training.

    Why suppose that a policy which empowers a panel of experts to determe what everyone “should” know will yield a better outcome than will result from policies which empower individual parents to determine for their own children the choice of curriculum in an uncoerced, unsubsidized market in education services?

    By its own measure, compulsory schooling has failed. The State-monopoly school system has stifled innovation in learning technology and technique. Many Americans shun books and many Americans cannot perform simple computations without a calculator. Compulsion generates an allergic reaction.

  18. A certain amount of math is what most people need. Good examples are given in John Allen Paulos book ‘Innumeracy’. Much of it centers on statistics based kinds of math but there are other things I can think of as well. Here’s some examples.
    – Being able to do the math in your head to decide what product to buy at the supermarket, department store or auto dealer.
    – Being able to understand enough of the math behind a mortgage to prevent yourself from getting into trouble.
    – Knowing enough about statistics and numbers to assess whether a politician is giving you a line of baloney instead of the truth
    – In a manufacturing environment, knowing enough about number to do your job. Such things as statistical quality control require a degree of math literacy.

    This is a small list and there are numerous examples. If you look at history, the state of math knowledge can be argued to be not really that different from previous generations. We do seem however to be focused on math as some kind of savior for ourselves and our children rather than another tool that helps us to live better.

  19. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    “In short, I know a number of engineers who use surprisingly little math in their line of work. The problem is that their work is inferior because of it.”

    How true. I think this is because a kid who, say, likes fixing cars is nudged/pushed into pursuing engineering instead of auto mechanics where he may naturally belong. The kid suffers through his engineering classes and emerges the would-be mechanic he always was.

    One of my high-school classmates who was a motor head found himself in calculus and physics classes in the college we both attended. He was very disillusioned that they didn’t have him with his head under the hood of a car the entire time. He lasted one semester and joined the Marines.

    Guidance counselors, just like teachers and administrators, need far more real training than they currently receive.

  20. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    I find it interesting how education discussions seem to oscillate between one extreme and the other, never stopping along the way.

    On the one hand there is the thinking that every teacher must make every child MASTER all the material, meaning in practice that every kid is supposed to master all subject matter subsequent to HS graduation.

    When that fails we suddenly get people suggesting that hardly anyone needs to know anything about anything.

    We would probably be better off abandoning the first assumption without automatically negating it in its entirety.

    Instead of dumbing down the math so that everybody automagically “succeeds” we should teach the math well and allow the chips to fall where they may. Those who suck at math would still suck just as they did when they “succeeded”, but at least those who are good at and are destined to use it will learn something.

  21. In reviewing the posts, I find the question should be the following:

    Does the student have a full mastery (w/out the use of a calculator) over addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, decimals, fractions/ratios, and percentages?

    If so, the student will be prepared for approximately 70-80% of what they’ll probably need during their lifetime.

    The other 20-30 percent can be added on when the student decides their career field.

    The other issue which most people seem to miss (and something employers lament) is that courses in math (if taught properly) can provide skills in critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving (which many employers lament is lacking among many high school and college graduates).

  22. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    I meant “prior to” and not “subsequent” (it was early)

  23. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Bill, don’t citizens and consumers also need some working knowledge of statistics and probability? I suspect we need two courses, one being a guide to the uses and abuses of statistics for non-mathematicians and the other dealing with the nuts and bolts of it for the math minded.

  24. I didn’t consider basic probability and statistics in my previous post, and I’d agree that the knowledge would be useful as well.

  25. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ref the question in the last graf:
    Sure, if they’re not planning on being engineers, have careers in medicine or other hard sciences, or don’t mind being bulled by advocates.
    I had an unfortunate experience with an experimental stat course. The experiment was on how to teach it. Turned out to be a bad idea and we all got courtesty Ds.
    While, after forty-plus years, I still recall that chi-square is a statistical tool and not a block of sorority houses, I did learn a number of things which are non-mathematical. Such as that random means a process which we do not see and cannot influence, not a statistically proportionate outcome. What happens when you move along a bell curve. IOW, I’m a better citizen despite my lack of math skills in stat.
    Point is, solving equations is only part of math. Not many people use math to evaluate a mortgage proposal. They look at the tables of payouts and compare them. One number is bigger than the other. Not particularly difficult.

  26. As a programmer working at an engineering company, I use math all the time. Statistics, linear algebra, trig, you name it. While I rarely use calculus, the principles of differentiation and integration come up often. Understanding that integration yields the area under the curve is important even if you’re going to measure rather than calculate the area under the curve.

    Most people don’t use math in their everyday lives because they can’t, not because it wouldn’t be useful. Watching the news on TV, for example, affords many opportunities to use math (such as reasoning about the statistics being babbled).

    People always forget that there is great beauty in mathematics as well. You can’t enjoy it, however, if you don’t speak the language.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_beauty

  27. The comments by the professor were provocative, so I’m not at all surprised by the heat they have provoked.

    As others have said, “how much” maths is required is one thing; “what kinds” is another (and though implicit, is unsaid in the arguments). I do wonder exactly how the professor arrives at the conjecture that mathematics is not necessary or useful to everyday life, but literature, the arts, and music are. I suppose one might say we consume the arts, literature, and music daily if you stretch the definitions (e.g., is computer-generated pop music from pre-adolescents “the arts?” Are works of pulp fiction of the sort churned out by Janet Evanovich “literature?”)

    I’m biased in that I am a mathematician, and us all sorts of maths nearly every day in my job – calculus, linear algebra, statistics – which combines the two. I would not think that most people would need to know abstract algebra or ring/field theory or stochastic calculus.

    The problem is that if one cedes the playing field on even simple algebra (i.e., that all you ‘need’ to know you learn very early on), then you really are at the mercy in some respects of those who do understand them. We’re fast becoming an innumerate society – ask the average guy on the street the difference between one million, one billion, and one trillion, and I suspect that the answer is going to be “not that much – they’re all big numbers.” In fact, the difference is enormous. Ask him how to evaluate his taxes or read through the calculations in applying for a mortgage, or why he needs to look at his credit card payments and the amortization of his debt, and I suspect you’ll likely find that he cannot do any of these.

    THAT is one way we get slippery people ginning up debt crises of the sort we see now.

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