Is Math Overrated?

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Is mathematical literacy another false cure for an invented disease? A professor of mathematics, statistics, and computer science, G. V. Ramanathan, thinks the unthinkable in a Washington Post op-ed, suggesting that mathematical skills are not only overrated in practical life, but are also a manufactured need:

There are three steps to this kind of aggressive marketing. The first is to convince people that white teeth, a full head of hair and a sculpted physique are essential to a good life. The second is to embarrass those who do not possess them. The third is to make people think that, since a good life is their right, they must buy these products.

So it is with math education. A lot of effort and money has been spent to make mathematics seem essential to everybody's daily life. There are even calculus textbooks showing how to calculate -- I am not making this up and in fact I taught from such a book -- the rate at which the fluid level in a martini glass will go down, assuming, of course, that one sips differentiably. Elementary math books have to be stuffed with such contrived applications; otherwise they won't be published.

Professor Ramanathan is not the only academic questioning education's competitiveness.In 1995 the NYU nuclear physicist and former president of the National Association of Science Teachers, Morris Shamos, raised a similar stir when he published The Myth of Scientific Literacy. The economist Amar Bhidé, a pro-globalization optimist and foe of "techno-nationalism," recalls the warnings of the 1980s and actual growth in his book The Venturesome Economy:

As it happened, the United States prospered while the Japanese and German economies slackened. And it wasn't because the warnings were acted upon. There was no great improvement in math and science education in high schools. Enrollment in law schools remained robust, and managers continued to increase their share of overall employment. The U.S. share of scientific articles, PhDs in science and engineering, and patents continued to decline. The service sector (including hamburger chains) continued to expand, and manufacturing employment continued to stagnate.

Of course some people made terrible personal financial decisions during the sub-prime mortgage boom, but that was less because they lacked math skills than because they made what turned out to be terribly wrong assumptions. In fact some of the biggest errors in recent financial history were made by mathematically proficient experts who trusted their own skills too much, like the founders of Long-Term Capital.

The math that people really need is neither theorem-based nor computational, but an everyday number sense shared by: street traders worldwide (legal and illegal), real-estate negotiators, successful poker players, many with little formal math education. The math and science training that really stays with people and is most useful, now that computation is almost a free good, is seat-of-the-pants, back-of-the-envelope thinking. The physicists I have known are consistently good at this kind of guesstimation in everyday life, and there's now at least one book about it.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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