Students think jobs require no math, English

Academics are pointless, Ilana Garon’s students at a Bronx high school told her.  “When am I ever going to need Shakespeare? Or geometry?”

When asked, two said they wanted to be astronauts. A third wants to be an actress. “You want to be astronauts, and you think you’re not going to need math?”  Garon asked. She turned to the actress. “Or English?”

They were certain that most of what they were learning in high school was totally irrelevant to their future career choices.

Garon supports alternatives to the traditional “college for all” academic path such as trade and career-tech programs. Her “students also need a crash course in career awareness.”  Many careers — IT, accounting, engineering, hospitality management — are off their radar. They don’t know the skills and habits the workforce requires.

About Joanne


  1. I’m not sure that *teachers* actually realize how much general knowledge, math, and writing get used in every career, unless they’ve had actual work experience.

    Math shows up in all sorts of unexpected places, and I frequently need equations to answer questions of the “If this is true, how much of those do we need?” format.

    My writing skills have given me opportunities for lucrative, flexible, part time work. I’ve made connections in the work-world based on having enough subject-matter background to ask people questions about their interests.

    And, on a less practical level, having a broad knowledge base means that you’re never bored. You need vocabulary and background knowledge to think about things, but if you have a supply of things to think about, you carry your entertainment with you wherever you go.

    The big problem is that, even if you tell the kids this, they won’t believe you or won’t care. Teens often use “When am I going to use this???” as a stand-in for “Thins looks hard and I don’t feel like doing this right now” because they know the former will result in an impassioned and time-wasting speech, thus getting them out of the task at hand.

    The real problem is that most kids don’t want to be in school and know that there will be no short or medium-term consequences for blowing off most assignments. Even if something was obviously useful long-term, they’d avoid it if it was hard and boring-looking. What they really want to know is “How will this help me attract the people I’m attracted to?”

    • dangermom says:

      Very true, I think. I can tell my young teen all day long that math is very important for adults–if you want to buy a house, you’d better understand the math behind mortgages, and the housing bubble was a direct result of the entire country NOT understanding math–but it’s too far off for her to really believe in. I wouldn’t have cared either at 14. But getting out of the hard and boring math homework, *that* looks good.

  2. Fact of the matter, listening to teenagers whine about what is relevant is the same as arguing bedtimes with a four year old.

    They just don’t know enough to make that judgement. Every student I have suggests they know enough, and get upset when I tell them prove it. They tell me how, and I tell them that their grades, diplomas and resume are proof of a life well lived. Their parole record, of one not so well lived.

    But if you want to have X, you need to do Y. In order to do Y, you have to prove that you can do Y. In the cruel cold world, it doesn’t matter what you think or feel. Only what you can prove.

    And that’s where their argument falls apart.

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    Most jobs out there do NOT require math beyond very basic algebra. Other First World countries typically have separate college prep tracks in high school for STEM and humanities. My oldest DD wants to be a speech & language pathologist and she feels it the height of unfairness to have to take the standard college prep math sequence. On the one hand, I sympathize with her, but on the other, she’s too young to know for sure that she won’t change her mind about pursuing a STEM field. She might decide to become a pediatrician rather than a SLP, in which case she’d need the higher math to get through the physical science prerequisites.

    • Depending on where they go to school, some SLPs take the same bio sequence as nursing students. Although the math in the labs is really just algebra, it doesn’t seem to be algebra that the students know how to do (more students drop after struggling in the math part than any other section).

      The SLP students complain that they’ll never need to do the calculations, which are mostly oriented around dosage calculation. They have to understand that it’s really not possible to make a different course for every possible major. Most places that I’ve been have 3 levels – non-majors (science elective), nursing (all medical-related technicians and nurses), and ‘big bio’, which is for pre-med and those planning to go to grad school in the bio sciences. Even material that you don’t really need for your major, you might need because colleges can’t build courses around exactly what you personally need to know (not that your daughter expects this, but thinking that the requirements of the job dictate exactly what you need to learn is a common problem).

    • It makes me sad when non-STEM majors complain about having to take College Algebra. It’s just plain, old, Algebra people! It’s basically Algebra I & II from high school retreaded, with a little bit of PreCal thrown in at the end to spice things up. Anyone with a high school diploma should (theoretically; though grade inflation, etc. at K-12 destroys this unfortunately) be able to handle your standard freshman Bachelor’s College Math class with no problems!!

  4. CrimsonWife,

    I think you’re missing the point, math teaches by definition critical thinking, problem solving, and analysis (which are needed sorely by most employers looking to fill jobs). When it comes to English/Grammar, it was by definition my worst subject in high school, but as I went farther up the career ladder, the ability to write well was almost as important as the technical stuff that I did in a given job (esp. when you’re writing 30-40 page technical briefs or documentation).

    A person isn’t even going to be qualified to apply to be an astronaut unless they have a college degree in a STEM field, and given the technical nature of some jobs today, the lack of math and English skills among high school and college graduates is indeed appalling.

    • Not just appalling, but it will ultimately lead to the U.S. regressing from a 1st World country back into a 3rd World country. Maybe in just 2-3 generations. Not everyone can work at McDonald’s as a server!