Poll: Math is most valuable subject

Math is the most valuable school subject in later life, say Americans in a new Gallup poll. English, literature, or reading came in second, but lost a few points since 2002. Science/physics/biology increased from 4 percent to 12 percent, passing history for third place.

Trend: Thinking about all the subjects you studied in school, which one, if any, has been the most valuable to you in your life? [OPEN-ENDED]

The importance of English rises with higher levels of formal education, tying math as the most important among four-year college graduates and coming in first among postgraduates.

About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    It would be fascinating to know what parts of math these people used in later life. I suspect that a few percent, those in high-powered STEM jobs or finance, use advanced math. But I would be willing to bet large amounts of money that the vast majority use nothing past Algebra I. Which suggests that public schools should concentrate on making sure that students understand basic math, and de-emphasize the rest.

    • And I’d be willing to bet large amounts of money that the vast majority that use nothing past Algebra I spend most of their lives only making small amounts of money…

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I would be willing to bet enormous amounts of money against that assertion. People who make more than “small amounts of money” may use numbers a lot, but they don’t do any advanced math with them.

  2. Higher math teaches logic – it trains the brain. While I don’t see the need for every student to take calculus, the discipline of taking Algebra and Geometry, especially the old-fashioned way using proofs is valuable beyond training for STEM fields.

    • If we don’t, as a society, have the collective IQ to make Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II standard for high school graduation, then we’re in trouble. Big trouble. As in “Sputnik panic” trouble.

  3. GEORGE LARSON says:

    My peers consider me a math person, but I think the most valuable skill is the ability to communicate clearly. A lot of mathematicians are unable to communicate the value of their results or math in general. I have seen more than a few people publish material stating math is useless: Colman McCarthy for example.

  4. Well, math IS useless, if you don’t know any. It’s a slam dunk: not a single person who failed to learn math will find that math has any use in their everyday life.

  5. Well, I can honestly say I don’t use the following on a daily basis:

    diff eqns
    linear algebra
    abstract algebra
    engineering physics
    digital logic (though I use it on occasion)
    numerical analysis
    formal or symbolic logic (though I use it on occasion)

    What math teaches people who learn it correctly is:

    problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis skills
    (which is something many graduates of high school
    and college have a hard time grasping).

    • Perhaps, in a generic sense, but all those branches of Math exist in the first place becuase they were needed to solve actual problems. They’re not just abstract playthings.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Actually, a lot of math began because of the curiosity of mathematicians, with no thought of practical problems. Yet much of that “impractical” math has turned out to have enormous practical usefulness. That’s a reason to keep open the research university math departments.

        But only a small number of people use that sort of high-powered math. They are the ones with the interest and talent for it. We could try to force everyone to learn it but the costs would far exceed the benefits.

  6. A society lives or dies based on its Math skills (which then extends to all its other STEM skills). The countries who have good overall Math skills end up dominating the countries that don’t. It’s been that way since the times of ancient Sumer and Egypt, and it will still be that way when a United Earth starts competing with alien races around the Galaxy.

    So, keeping that in mind… The USA, and the West in general, is in trouble. If we don’t turn things around soon, China and India will be telling us what to do and how to do it in just a few generations…

    • Elim: Really? Because Captain Kirk had a CLEAR edge over the Romulans but less than 80 years later, Picard almost wet himself whenever a Warbird shows up? You think it was because the Romulans are better at math than the Vulcans or, heck, even the Zakdorn? It was more likely due to a classic “guns vs. butter” decision.

      But hey, we’ve apparently blown that one too, so the outcome might well be the same.

      • I’d say that the “guns vs. butter” (a la a book like ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’) is also extremely important. But a society’s overall Math skills will determine how much guns and butter they can produce. (or the better guns, or the better butter, than their opponents). Better Math skills also leads to superior weapons, defense, tactics… etc.