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How Much Math Do We Really Need?

samzenpus posted more than 3 years ago | from the factor-your-future dept.

Math 1153

Pickens writes "G.V. Ramanathan, a professor emeritus of mathematics, statistics and computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes in the Washington Post that although a lot of effort and money has been spent to make mathematics seem essential, unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everybody's daily life. 'All the mathematics one needs in real life can be learned in early years without much fuss,' writes Ramanathan. 'Most adults have no contact with math at work, nor do they curl up with an algebra book for relaxation.' Ramanathan says that the marketing of math has become similar to the marketing of creams to whiten teeth, gels to grow hair and regimens to build a beautiful body, but even with generous government grants over the past 25 years, countless courses, conferences, and books written on how to teach teachers to teach, where is the evidence that these efforts have helped students? A 2008 review by the Education Department found that the nation is at 'greater risk now' than it was in 1983, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress math scores for 17-year-olds have remained stagnant since the 1980s (PDF). Meanwhile those who do love math and science have been doing very well and our graduate schools are the best in the world. '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?'"

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A little more (5, Insightful)

Tomun (144651) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080700)

We could use, at least, a basic understanding of probability..

Re:A little more (5, Insightful)

RabbitWho (1805112) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080736)

Understanding it and applying it aren't the same thing. I know lots of people who are much much much better at maths than I am and still can't get their head around the concept of coincidence.

Re:A little more (4, Funny)

modmans2ndcoming (929661) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080860)

I was just thinking the same thing!!

Are you listening to my thoughts?

Re:A little more (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080996)


Re:A little more (5, Funny)

Culture20 (968837) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081000)

I was just thinking the same thing!!

Are you listening to my thoughts?

That joke works better when you think it to yourself. Then everyone can have a good laugh.

What we do/don't need in Calculus. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080904)

Calculus is filled with contrived application like related rates. Get rid of those! Many integration techniques are important for theoretical reasons and have been removed. Get rid of most of the garbage about area and volume of surfaces of revolution. One would be adequete - \int \pi f(x)^2 dx. Shells and washers are riduculous. I could go on and on...

Re:What we do/don't need in Calculus. (1)

biryokumaru (822262) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080934)

I don't know, we need a lot of that weird volume stuff for electromagnetics. Maybe your mathematics courses were tailored to cover all the basics students at your school needed for higher level courses in more rigorous disciplines. I know that's how they pick what to put in the curriculum at my school.

Re:What we do/don't need in Calculus. (1)

drewhk (1744562) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081052)

There is one problem, though. Achieving a really useful level of math needs about 15 years. Now trim the math from basic education and you are harming those who actually want to use it professionally later. It is like piano -- you have to start learning very early to be able to reach the top. While I understand that this increases the pressure on those students who will never use it, but I think that is an acceptable tradeoff.

Re:A little more (1)

pD-brane (302604) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080954)

Indeed, in any discussion where probability is relevant, people tend to say stupid things. Think for instance about insurances, the lottery, gambling, the weather, or the injust use of the word 'coincidence'.

Re:A little more (4, Insightful)

tftp (111690) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080982)

"Lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math."

Re:A little more (1)

AffidavitDonda (1736752) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080978)

At least enough to understand, why "double your previous bet" in the "best roulette system in the world" doesn't work...

Re:A little more (1)

32771 (906153) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081018)

Indeed. Since our actions are now affecting much larger parts of the planet than a simple hunter/gatherer can understand, we need to know the size of the effect of our actions. Also our reasoning about the society we live in should not be solely based on our own experience but on equivalently certain information (give me your eyes and ears people (uh, not quite like that)). Because other people tend to distort information (and also we our self) more accuracy in information distribution and reasoning are needed. To give an example, anybody who is publishing statistically inaccurate information (i.e. published articles per source about terrorism vs traffic accidents has to match actual occurrence) has to pay a fine (personally I'm more in favour of bare bottom spanking but people might object). To enforce such a policy we need an educated public because laws don't spring into life by them self, its either money or the people.

Regarding the article, I didn't read it yet but I expect pure demagoguery, probably from the same Indian who lately bought Nazi paraphernalia - hey plain old cheap polemics is still allowed.

Just look at China (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34081032)

Not only they have been consistently high ranked in programming competitions, they are also becoming a reference of scientific and engineering work, not least because of their high standards in math on high-school and beyond.

Re:A little more (1)

mark-t (151149) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081060)

Possibly, but then charities wouldn't get as much money from lotteries as they currently do because a lot fewer people would buy tickets.

Wot no Google? (2, Insightful)

Colin Smith (2679) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081062)

People try to do really dumb stuff (at a national and global level) when they don't understand the maths of what they're going. Drill Drill Drill springs to mind. A little maths goes a long way.

Having said that, getting rid of the hard stuff from school would provide a larger underclass to exploit, which is quite handy from a corporate point of view.

Education, funnily enough isn't just about what's needed.

Re:A little more (1)

Plazmid (1132467) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081064)

and statistics... Wouldn't want everyone freaking out after every low-n medical study that comes out(IE "SMOKING MAKES YOU HEALTHIER!").

Exponential growth (5, Insightful)

Teckla (630646) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080712)

One part of math all people should be required to understand is exponential growth.

It might make people realize that population growth, resource consumption, etc. can't keep increasing at current levels without severe corrections in the somewhat close future.

Re:Exponential growth (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080898)

It's fine to increase the exponent in the imaginary direction though.

Re:Exponential growth (2, Insightful)

blackraven14250 (902843) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080912)

That's still relatively basic math. I think the message is that people don't really need to understand calculus, but they do need to understand things like exponents, single variable equation solving, and the general concepts behind statistics (population vs sample, general best practices for conducting a study [and thus how to determine if a study is even remotely unbiased], margin of error).

Understanding of derivatives and integrals isn't needed for everyday life, but those basics can very well be used.

Re:Exponential growth (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080916)

I'm picking you to respond to, but 90% of the posts so far follow the same underlying format.

I.E people don't agree with me because they don't understand the maths. We should teach more statistics/probability/complex number theory. Yada yada.

I would suggest that this line of thinking is dishonest or underhanded and a case of reliance on vague categories. People may have all sorts of reasons for disagreeing with you.

Re:Exponential growth (1)

mark-t (151149) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081004)

Yes, if they were to continue growing indefinitely. The finite amount of space and resources on this planet, however, suggests that is wholly impossible. Therefore, as the number of people on this planet actually begins to exceed the planet's resources to accommodate them, the death rate will start to rise, and eventually the birth and death rates will achieve a state of equilibrium where the planet's population remains relatively constant.

Re:Exponential growth (0)

DiamondGeezer (872237) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081026)

That was first postulated by Thomas Malthus, and comprehensively debunked by the succeeding 200+ years of history. Paul Erlich has preached on it, and its still just as wrong as it ever was.

I think its time you cracked a book on economics and then get back to the rest of us on how exactly you went wrong.

Re:Exponential growth (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34081038)

All the math a regular person needs is done in the first three grades, after that it's pretty much useless.

Not much (4, Funny)

bitslinger_42 (598584) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080716)

Speaking as someone with a degree in English Literature, I can safely say that I've only used math two times in my life: when learning it in school, when counting my kids at night, and when doing my taxes.

Re:Not much (4, Funny)

RabbitWho (1805112) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080786)

In my country we don't do our own taxes. I got fired from a job for not being able to add and subtract properly, among other problems. There were always certain types of maths I was great at and other things I just couldn't do.

This the bill is 12.75, the guy gives you 20 euro and 75 cents, what change do you give him? ARrrrrrrrrrrgh WHY DID YOU GIVE ME 75 cents! You ruined my life! 6,7,8,9? Just take your 75 cents back for christ sake. 7.35.

I'd have liked a little less linear programming and geometry (which i excelled at) and a little more practical math, that way maybe I could have a normal job now if I wanted one.

Re:Not much (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080832)


O I C Y U Got fired.

Re:Not much (2, Informative)

IICV (652597) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080892)

The rule for that is really simple: if someone owes you 12.75, and they pay you 20.75, then just pretend they owed you 12 and paid you 20. As long as the value of the coins is exactly the same, they just cancel out and all you have to do is deal with the bills.

Re:Not much (1)

SuperQ (431) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080922)

Wow, you are really bad at math(s). I'd much rather have 8 euro change (5+2+1) than have 7.25 euro. (5+2+.20+.05) The .20 euro coin is almost the same size as the 1 euro coin.

Re:Not much (1)

tftp (111690) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081058)

This the bill is 12.75, the guy gives you 20 euro and 75 cents, what change do you give him [...] Just take your 75 cents back for christ sake. 7.35.

12.75 + 7.35 = 20.10 - which means you gave him 10 cents more. No surprise you were fired from your job with these skillz :-)

Re:Not much (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080794)

This is really bullshit. Math is behind every freaking software we use in today. And of course, we really cannot live without good software to go with our hardware. Think of the iphone without the good ios software or think of a mobile network running without software. Because some idiot math professor makes some stupid claims does not mean you don't need to learn math.

Re:Not much (1)

blackraven14250 (902843) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080924)

You need math to program the software, but you really don't need it to design a sleek, effective UI. There's both people who need to know advanced mathematics, and people who don't.

Re:Not much (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080812)

So, that means you don't understand political surveys, scientific analyses or false positive rates in medicine. You must not be paying a mortgage, have insurance or be planning for your retirement either. What no carpentry either? Comgrats you've avoided math!

I use math every day. I may do it through estimation, but I still do it.

Re:Not much literature either (5, Insightful)

simonbp (412489) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080824)

Speaking as someone with a degree in Physics, I can safely say that I've only used literary analysis one time in my life: when learning it in school.

Re:Not much literature either (1)

zach_the_lizard (1317619) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080974)

Exactly. It's not like when I apply to an IT position they'll quiz me on the deeper meanings of The Great Gatsby. All of my English and composition classes have focused around this type of analysis, which is highly specialized and irrelevant for most everyone.

Re:Not much literature either (2, Insightful)

biryokumaru (822262) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080984)

You must be a terrible physicist. As an electrical engineer, I need literary analysis every time I read a technical paper, and I needed composition skills last time I submitted one for publication.

Re:Not much literature either (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34081056)

I take it you don't get published much in physics journals?

Re:Not much (2, Funny)

Chemisor (97276) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080858)

> I've only used math two times in my life: when learning it in school, when counting my kids at night, and when doing my taxes.

Three should be the number of thy counting!

Re:Not much (4, Insightful)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080864)

How much do you understand the budgets you pay taxes on, rates of growth in government and private economy, trends in your home value? Do you know how much you pay in interest on your loans, vs paying in full a little later? Have you considered how much you'd save by changing how your home is heated and powered, with an upfront investment? Do you have any idea how your IRA/401k is performing, or how you'd do if you reallocated its investments? Do you know how your gas mileage varies with different driving patterns or gas octanes?

You would if you used math.

Re:Not much (1)

oldmac31310 (1845668) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080880)

wait a minute. that's at least 4 times. Uh...five?

Re:Not much (1)

modmans2ndcoming (929661) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080894)

Insightful? I hope the mod marked it insightful in the same way satire is insightful, otherwise we have a much larger math problem in this country than I thought.

Re:Not much (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080896)

It shows, since apparently they didn't show you how to count to three :)

Don't feel bad, though: the mods can't count either.

Re:Not much (1)

Kilrah_il (1692978) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081054)


Re:Not much (1)

pooh666 (624584) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080908)

You have taxes to do? You mean you got a job with that fluff degree?

Re:Not much (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080930)

Speaking as someone with a degree in English Literature, I can safely say that I've only used math two times in my life: when learning it in school, when counting my kids at night, and when doing my taxes.

I think the humor here has been missed. I modded this funny because the poster says he's only used math twice in his life, and then he lists three instances. This was a very good, very subtle joke on /.ers.

Re:Not much (1)

jevring (618916) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080992)

Did no-one catch that those were 3 things?

Re:Not much (1)

HizookRobotics (1722346) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081020)

You used at least two mathematical concepts in this comment: (1) The number "2" (2) The idea of sets and enumeration. ;-)

In Soviet Russia (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080730)

Math needs you.

What World Does He Live On? (5, Insightful)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080732)

Yes! How can statistics possibly be useful in today's world? Or an understanding of continuously changing variables, like mortgages?

If more people understood math at that level, a lot fewer of us would be constantly fooled by financial flim-flam and political bullshit.

I'm a professor at a liberal arts college. I feel that music and literature is important, but there's no way I can say it's strictly more important than math or sciences. Equally important to being a well-rounded person? Sure.

Out of idle curiosity, when did "ramblings of a random guy" become "news"?

I kinda agree with him (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080874)

Obviously we all need some math (and as many here - myself included - are engineers, we know that a small portition of the people need more math)... But how much? Really, does average person ever have to deal with integrals, derivations... or nearly any other area of abstract algebra... after graduating? Everyone needs some very basich math (when shopping, dealing with loans, etc... But the type of math needed for that sort of things have been dealt with by sixth grade. If the point is that many still don't know them well enough, teaching more advanced subjects doesn't seem like a good solution.

Re:What World Does He Live On? (1)

blai (1380673) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080886)

You should believe in a world where some people just care about how many moneys is in their pockets and whether it is enough for them to hire someone to figure out the math for them. Sometimes, including the math for paying them.

Re:What World Does He Live On? (5, Insightful)

gman003 (1693318) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080888)

The problem isn't that math isn't important. The problem is that the math being taught isn't important.

I've just gotten all my math courses complete for college, so I can safely say that much of what I learned will never be needed. Calculus? Important to know the principles of it, but it won't be critical to working in the modern world, and I definitely won't need to know the formula for integrating trigonometric functions off the top of my head. Trigonometry? Not of much use, unless I go into engineering. Even some of the higher algebra is needless memorization - I will never need to mathematically prove the Quadratic Formula. Statistics? Yeah, that's important, and they spend all of one term teaching it, while making me take three classes on calculus.

You want kids to learn important math - stop making us memorize things we don't really even need to know. Trim calculus and formal proofs down to the fundamental theory, maybe a bit of practical, and then load up on the statistics, the logic theory (best place to put it, really). With calculators and computers, nobody needs to know math itself. What we need to know is how to think mathematically, and knowing (sec x)' = sec x * tan x doesn't do anything for that.

Re:What World Does He Live On? (3, Interesting)

zwei2stein (782480) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080994)

Formal proof is very important - if taught well, it teaches people to think in different way.

One of most enlightening moments when i was at university was excercise where we were given few claims and told to prove/disprove them formally.

Re:What World Does He Live On? (2, Insightful)

biryokumaru (822262) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081022)

Trim calculus and formal proofs down to the fundamental theory.

Yes, get rid of the actual derivations, because memorizing without understanding is obviously better than actually learning anything.

Re:What World Does He Live On? (1)

pooh666 (624584) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080928)

So true. Our whole civilization is built on math. Those who don't understand that will not be able to rise above worker bee, it is hard enough to do that anyway.

News for nerds, Stuff that matters (1)

G3ckoG33k (647276) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080948)

You are a professor at a liberal arts college and ask when did "ramblings of a random guy" become "news"? What did I miss here? The world is full of news about new books, which do contain such ramblings. But, true they may not always be the "News for nerds, Stuff that matters" that we all thirst for, but still are regarded as news.

Financial, statistics, queueing, sets (1)

klubar (591384) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080986)

Math is important for understanding statistics, probablity and financial literacy. It's also important for understanding queues; A good foundation in mathematics should include probability, basic statistics, some finance (interest rates, compound growth, mark-up, mark-down, ROI), fractions, percentages and a bit of symbolic arithmetic (aka, high school algebra). Understanding sets (union, intersection) doesn't hurt. The population would be less easily bamboozled if they had a basic grasp of math. And, yes I think numeracy is important for most white collar (and many blue collar) jobs. Most jobs in the 21st century are going to require high school math or better.

Re:What World Does He Live On? (1)

McLuhanesque (176628) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081014)

Out of idle curiosity, when did "ramblings of a random guy" become "news"?

Ever since they invented cable news channels?

The way we think (5, Insightful)

raving griff (1157645) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080734)

For me personally, learning advanced mathematics (calculus and beyond) has changed my thinking process from a purely creative, English-oriented one to an objective, analytical outlook. The true understanding of how mathematical principals work--what a derivative is and not merely how to calculate it--has shown me the power of mathematical, logical analysis. As an English major, I came to a point where I was not sure whether or not I wanted to continue taking math courses (as I will need almost no math beyond arithmetic in my life), but I came to the conclusion that the mindset mathematics gives me rather than the quantitative abilities it provides is what matters in my education, and I therefore encourage anybody to continue studying math well past the point in which the skills become irrelevant.

Language (5, Insightful)

nten (709128) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080862)

The languages we know affect what thoughts we can think. While it is very zen to say that words hide meaning, empirical evidence seems to indicate that we cannot conceive of ideas that we do not have language to express. Math can express most anything which allows for thoughts right up to the limits of our hardware. It seems like this is also a good reason to learn a human language with different roots than your native one, but I have not done that yet, so I couldn't say.

Trolling much? (1)

Ironchew (1069966) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080740)

unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everybody's daily life.

Now we'll be comparing the uselessness of those subjects. Nice troll, though.

2+2=10...... (1)

toygeek (473120) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080746)

In base 4!

Less math would be fine with me... (5, Interesting)

sootman (158191) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080774)

... as long as we replace it with logic and critical thinking. And finance. I don't care if someone can't do derivatives but everyone should understand the implications of credit card interest.

Re:Less math would be fine with me... (3, Interesting)

Chemisor (97276) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080914)

In my experience, you can't teach a person to think. It doesn't matter whether you try it with math, logic, or MBA "critical thinking"; those who already know how to think will pass your courses, those who don't will fail them, and guess which you are going to count if you don't know much about statistics and have an agenda to pursue?

Did you see that commercial? (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080776)

The one with that chick that is going to fix up her friend with the hunky mathematician. She tells her not to use her calculator so her calculus stays sharp. But she doesn't listen and uses her calculator all week, but the night before her big date she uses Crest Mathstrips and gets the hunky mathematician.

Math is about logical thinking (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080780)

Math is not just calculations. Even people who do not need to apply mathematics in their day to day lives need it to understand what they're working with. Math ist structure and logic. If you don't know math, you can't know mechanics, physics, chemistry, computers, accounting. You may be able to do what you're told in any of these fields, but to know what you're doing you need math.

Why anything else? (5, Insightful)

heyetv (248750) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080784)

Why teach History? Few people need that in their daily life or jobs. Why teach music? Other arts? Science? Few people need Chemistry or Physics in their daily lives... etc.

Because Mathematics, like the rest, increase our fundamental understanding of the world around us. It's part of creating critically thinking individuals who have more to give back to society than a simple job skill they learned at an early age. Or at least give them the opportunity... take away fundamental education, they no longer have the choice.

Re:Why anything else? (1)

Dasuraga (1147871) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080936)

I think that the point the article is trying to make is that math couses try to push us too far. If you consider what is covered, for example, in precal courses(which is around the end of obligatory math) we're taught things that are certainly essential for extended math learning, but bring nothing essential to the table for "necessary" everyday knowledge. Comprehension of trigonometric rules is essential, knowing Cramer's rule isn't. Just like how it's important to understand basic mechanics of the sciences, math is no different. But it's pointless to push people beyond what they need to know( or what they will retain of the whole for that matter).

Re:Why anything else? (1)

pooh666 (624584) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080950)

History is even more important than Math. People can learn what happens to those uneducated in math. :)

Re:Why anything else? (4, Insightful)

xtal (49134) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080958)

Mathematics is the language of science. (all science)

If people do not understand math, they are scientifically illiterate.

Applied science (technology) is what enables our free societies to work.

If only a few people know the language of science, then only a few people will control it. This is not a good state of affairs for freedom.

Re:Why anything else? (5, Interesting)

Tumbleweed (3706) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081050)

Why teach History? Few people need that in their daily life or jobs.

Yeah, until you start voting for TEA party candidates because you've never heard of the Know Nothings.

Science? Few people need Chemistry or Physics in their daily lives... etc.

Basic chemistry and physics could save you from mixing two common household items (or leaving them around for the kids to find) that don't react well together, or from not realizing what role momentum has to play when doing certain 'jackass' style stunts or driving. Those things can save your life.

Math? Up to a certain point, math is incredibly useful in everyday life. The trick is to find out what that certain point IS. Like others have said, probability and statistics are probably higher up there than most people would think, as far as being useful in your daily life. Having to do geometric proofs? No, let's not be silly. Calculus is useless for the vast majority of people (I've taken engineering-level calculus, so I'm not speaking from a position of ignorance here on that).

I think a much more practical program that helps people do what they will ALL need to do is better, and let them specialize as they wish. Everyone should be able to do their taxes, understand basic economic theory for when it comes time to vote, etc. The problem is not that people take too much math, because I believe most people only get as far as basic algebra in the U.S. by the time they're out of high school, but that people aren't learning how to apply it to the real world, and they aren't being taught anywhere NEAR enough of the other stuff with the real world applications, as they should be.

If we had a good public education system in this country, I doubt the TEA Party, whose candidates seem to evince a spectacular lack of understanding of the U.S. Constition, either wouldn't exist, or their preferred candidates would be very, very different. When you claim to be all about enforcing the Constitution, and one of your most highly-visible candidates doesn't know where the concept of 'Separation of Church and State' comes from, that's pretty telling.

Teaching economics and social theory and international trade, etc., would all be very valuable in trying to recover from our current mess, and preventing it from happening again.

But I think the most valuable lessons that could be taught would be in real world politics. Everything that's going wrong starts with a corrupt-by-design system we have, and until we fix that, we're not going to fix anything else without simply shifting the corruption into other forms.

Keeping the populace uneducated in useful things (rather than having everyone learn Calculus in high school) seems like a pretty good way to keep the status quo.

essential (3, Interesting)

nten (709128) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080792)

How does literature or music get labeled as essential and not math? We learn math so we can build things that let us have time to create literature and music. Sure not everyone needs it (though probability would certainly help), but no one *needs* literature or music, its just the sort of thing we *want*. Some day when we finish automating all the jobs we'll all get to devote all our time to creating art... for our robotic overlords.

Re:essential (4, Interesting)

zach_the_lizard (1317619) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081030)

Not all of us want to study literature and music. I especially hate it when the prof looks down on what you like to read/listen to as "not music/literature".

Math is not an end (3, Insightful)

biryokumaru (822262) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080800)

A knowledge of math does not simply improve your ability to solve math problems. It is not the direct application of mathematics on everyday life that is most beneficial, but the analytical and conceptual skill set gained by learning higher level math. The real benefit is that when you study "literature, history, politics and music," you can actually conceptualize the complex interconnections and processes at work in a truly quantifiable way.

I learned computer programming at a very young age, and today, as an electrical engineering student, I am at a great advantage over my peers because of my ability to conceptualize and understand processes. The core of that is my learned ability with mathematics, both algebraic and algorithmic. It also spills over into my humanities courses, where the method of formalizing concepts central to the field of mathematics vastly improves my ability to synthesize complex texts. Of course, that's partly because nothing is as hard to understand as undocumented code, and partly because I have the mathematical foundation to build and conceptualize systems.

If anything, we need to push mathematics younger and younger, and complement that with computer programming courses. I know my 2 year old son will be getting weekly lessons from me on these subjects when he grows up, without question.

If the rest of the country continues to decline on the international standard of education, I know that at least my children will not.

Re:Math is not an end (4, Interesting)

Animats (122034) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081002)

It is not the direct application of mathematics on everyday life that is most beneficial, but the analytical and conceptual skill set gained by learning higher level math.

Nah. That claim was once made for teaching Latin in public schools. It's still made for teaching Euclidean plane geometry.

mmm Math. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080802)

All of it.

Demonstrable results (2, Interesting)

simonbp (412489) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080806)

Does education in "literature, history, politics and music" have any "demonstrable results or accountability"? Indeed, in my profession, I use my math education on a daily (if not hourly) basis, while I can't remember a single instance of literature, history, politics and music having any utility or relevance. My sister, a nursing student, has seen much of her class drop away because they couldn't do the simple math that they need for their job.

Math can be useful for much more professions than pretty much any subject taught in school, short of basic reading skills. Literature, history, politics and music are, frankly, just enrichments.

I for one (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080808)

am glad I was taught math. I wouldn't be able to do half the stuff I do right now if I hadn't been.

Confusing popularity with importance (5, Insightful)

etymxris (121288) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080816)

Music and literature may be popular, but they are hardly essential. And history's importance mainly comes from informing politics.

Do most people need to know multivariable calculus? No. But one thing most people are missing is an understanding of basic statistics and logic. Statisticians don't help much. Courses need to be more than just memorizing a bunch of statistical formulas. People need to understand why basic statistical reasoning works. If people don't have that basic philosophical understanding of why statistics work, then they'll just forget all about the formulas they were forced to memorize after the course is over.

These types of courses should be essential for all, but they aren't even available until college--and even then they're optional.

The Art of Thinking (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080822)

Most people don't directly use anything they learn in school. This goes deep into specialized programs such as engineering, even--the lessons from textbooks just are not applied directly. Does that mean all those programs are a waste of time? Might as well get people fresh out of HS. They'll be four years younger (and cheaper!) and not be especially behind in terms of what they have to learn.

Of course, what I propose above is ridiculous! Degree programs are about training people how to learn that field, not necessarily for teaching them the field directly. An employer doesn't look at a high GPA as a sign that you already know so much. They see it as that you are capable of learning, doing so at a high level, and caring enough to do so.

People need mathematics not because they're going to go out and compute all these things every day. Even engineers don't use all that much math beyond algebra on a daily basis. Rather, mathematics is a logical progression of steps. There are a list of rules and operations one can do, and needs to choose which of those to apply and then do so correctly. Every day, people are confronted with systems full of rules they have to follow, and need to know how to maneuver through those systems optimally. Mathematics teaches that.

It's unfortunate that most people never get to the truly higher mathematics, where proofs are taught. Being able to see the subtlety in arguments (and language!) is an invaluable skill for anyone. The rigor and logic of proof-based mathematics would be far more valuable than the symbol manipulation of lower levels. However, most people never get to that level, having given up far before then. At times I wonder whether the whole of people is actually capable of doing it.

Re:The Art of Thinking (1)

cheekyjohnson (1873388) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081042)

"They see it as that you are capable of learning"

Which they would see if you demonstrated to them that you are knowledgeable in a specific subject that you actually use.

"People need mathematics not because they're going to go out and compute all these things every day."

If they're not going to use advanced mathematics, they don't need it. All this does is just increase the rate of failures in the school system by forcing people to take classes which they do not need. If they wish to do well, they devote a lot of time to something they likely will not use.

Why bother? (2, Insightful)

oldmac31310 (1845668) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080834)

Yeah, like why bother? We're all going to die anyway. I did not RTFA but the summary is horribly defeatist in tone.

The problem is (3, Interesting)

JamesP (688957) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080840)

They spend too much time teaching crap and instead skip over the important stuff

Why the f... did I learn trigonometric equations ins high school?! Really... Polynomial equation solving?!

Derivatives would be much more useful. And don't beat around the bush on limits, etc, that's math "self-indulgence", go directly to derivatives, simple, done

If they cut the crap and stick with the essentials, then maybe people will learn better. Maybe can they shave a year from the school curriculum so that students can go and study what interests them.

how much is enough ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080842)

May be one can learn from people in :

Math is recursively important (5, Insightful)

giuseppemag (1100721) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080844)

Math is important for understanding why math is important. Which in turn allows you to see that math is important for being able to reason in a structured and abstract way about the world. Many people confuse math with arithmethic, algebra, trigonometry and calculus because these were all labeled math when they were students. Nothing could be farther from the truth. At its foundation, math is very closely tied with logic in that it is deductive rather than inductive, and you use it to prove complex assertions by stitching together smaller components you already know are true. The fact that with this system you can go on and prove the validity of the theoretical tools that you use to build a bridge that stays up or to make an airplane that flies or even to understand the best way to invest your own money is what makes math not only important but also amazing...

Math is important when taught correctly (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080878)

Math should be taught for it's application of logic, not the memorization of formulas and algorithms. The average person DOES need to be able to apply logic on a daily basis. Certainly people do not use the quadratic equation daily, but the same mental abilities to derive the formula are useful on a daily basis.

Due to current culture, people do need to understand statistics. This is because mainstream media uses people's lack of fundamental understanding of statistics to confuse them.

Speak for yourself (1)

mbone (558574) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080910)

I use math (including some advanced stuff) every day. And, I am not talking about work. Literature, history, politics and music, not so much.

Ridiculous! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080920)

What happens in an advanced industrial society where most people are functionally innumerate, and have difficulty reading tables and graphs?

Does democracy work correctly when people cannot evaluate economic data for themselves, but merely vote along religious/ethnic/ideological lines?

If the campaign ads for these midterms are any indication, it's a no.

Amen! (1)

DesScorp (410532) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080926)

I guess it takes a mathematician to say what most people instinctively know: beyond basic math education, there is zero burning need for much math education when it comes to most people. We DO need some expanded math education, but not the kind that government and industry pushes in high schools and colleges so relentlessly. Most people forced to take Trigonometry, Calculus, etc, will only resent it it, hate the experience, and never use what they learn. The quite insane push to force more students into science and engineering... and the predictably dismal results of that push... should be abolished, and stat. Those that love advanced math, or merely those that are curious, will never need a government sponsored ad campaign to take a calculus class.

So what kinds of math DO most people need more of in High School? Practical maths dealing everyday problems, especially finances. Perhaps if more people knew how to calculate a simple mortgage, governments and banks and interested parties wouldn't have been able to sell subprime loans so easily. Getting the average man to understand interest rates will have a far more positive effect then making him sit through an algebra class he neither needs nor cares about.

It depends entirely on what one's "daily life" is (1)

mark-t (151149) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080932)

As a programmer, I find I am using math almost constantly, including the calculus and linear algebra courses I took in post secondary. A broad knowledge of math has been helpful to me in inventing ways to model certain types of problems I've had occasion to run into that I suspect would have taken me much longer to write (and probably been much less elegant) otherwise.

On a more general note, I have met more than a disconcerting number of grown adults who cannot divide a three-digit number by 2 without using a calculator, or even just add a pair of 2 digit numbers in their head. Is it essential? Well, probably not... but if you don't bother to learn the basics you are going to inevitably come across as someone who should never have been allowed to graduate high school. Judgemental? Possibly. It's still reality though.

Math doesn't suck (4, Insightful)

Culture20 (968837) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080942)

Danica McKellar said so, and she's prettier than G.V. Ramanathan.

easy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080946)

answer: none.
we survived without math thousands of years ago, so obviously it's not needed.

it depends on what you need.

anyway, it's a stupid question since 99.9% of today's technology and advance in any field requires strong math.

Niels (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34080956)

In todays world, especially the financial world, math has become very important actually, where math used to be applied to calculate break-even its now used to gobber up that that promille. I'm thankfull to the business world allowing me to skip moral concerns over to my new paradigm "get filthy rich", it has really worked! Who needs snare theory anyways?

Everyone needs algebra (1)

OnePumpChump (1560417) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080962)

The ability to solve for X is applicable in at least one aspect of just about everyone's life. You quilt, you have some known elements you want to include, and you need to know how big your other pieces need to be. You ride motorcycles and you want to change your bike's acceleration big a gear do you need? You do absolutely anything involving money over a long period of time.

I've never had any sort of science or engineering job, but I've never gone 6 months without using SOMETHING from Algebra 1 or Algebra 2. You just have to be able to recognize when it can help. (I've rarely used anything beyond that, though.)

Completely off base (1)

bradgoodman (964302) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080964)

"unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everybody's daily life."

I listen to music.
I am forced to hear people yammer about politics occasionally on NPR
As for history and literature - probably the furthest thing from relevant in my day-to-day life.

As an engineer and programmer - math is with me all the time.

As a "average joe" - it's with me every time I pay for something or tell time. Even if *I'm* not doing it - its often some machine I'm directly involved with that does.

The two words that summarized where the whole article was coming from, were: "Professor" and "Emeritus"

Precisely (3, Insightful)

cheekyjohnson (1873388) | more than 3 years ago | (#34080980)

I've felt this way for a long time now, only about many other subjects that are mandatory in the school system as well. Instead of just teaching the essentials in the early years and allowing them to choose their classes in high school, they force you to take classes which have nothing to do with your desired profession. This likely increases the amount of failures because failing one of these non-essential subjects (which you aren't interested in) could cause you to fail an entire year. If you attempt to do well in one of these classes which you do not need, you will end up devoting a lot of time and effort for... something that you do not need. If people later change their mind about their desired profession, that is their own choice. They do that currently, and many of them have to relearn what they need for their desired profession, anyway, because when you don't use something, it is easily forgettable (even in a short amount of time). Sadly, many people think that more mandatory classes and tedious work will somehow make everyone more intelligent, but in reality, much of their time goes to waste memorizing this information which is not useful to them (which they forget soon enough because they do not use it, anyway).

Is this some kind of ploy? (4, Insightful)

wickerprints (1094741) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081006)

I know Ramanathan as the author of a series of study manuals for the preliminary examinations for actuarial science in the US. It honestly surprises me that someone of that level of mathematical knowledge would make such a poorly reasoned argument. As such I must consider the possibility that this is some kind of cynical elitist ploy to retain mathematics as the language of the privileged and well-educated, much like Latin hundreds of years ago. But this too seems too sinister a line of thought to entertain--and somewhat contradictory, given what I know of him.

Nevertheless, the logic is unsound. Mathematics is not merely computation or abstract manipulation of symbols. It is a way of thinking that not only fosters an understanding of the importance of logical reasoning, but also the necessity to substantiate and quantify one's empirical observations. That is to say, mathematics is the foundation of science. To say that most people don't need anything more than the most basic knowledge of math is like saying people don't need the ability to think critically.

The reason why we learn mathematics is not just to perform work with it, but to learn how to think logically and behave rationally. If there should be any doubt about this, just look at the state of mathematics education in the US today, and compare that to how appropriately we assess things like the relative risk of terrorist threats versus being in a car accident; or how well people understand what happened with the Wall Street bailouts; or even something as basic as compound interest as it applies to making payments on credit cards. I think the evidence is overwhelming to support the notion that people suffer from innumeracy, not too much mathematics. And given that Ramanathan writes study manuals for actuarial candidates, I find his lack of understanding of this point to be all the more remarkable.

Don't confuse the two (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34081008)

The article summary posted brings two issues and treats them as one - the value of teaching mathematics, and the value of "teaching how to teach" mathematics. The two can be related, but they are not one and the same. One might contend that learning mathematics has limited value; but for a person who must do just that, learning how to teach mathematics is requisite for the job.

don't know much about... (4, Insightful)

smoothnorman (1670542) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081016)

Why stop at math? We don't need to know much about chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, or anything besides how to change the batteries in the remote. An operative word here is "need". In some sense all we "need" do is stuff food in our mouths and breathe. Now, change the "need" to some zeroth law about seeing the species as a whole progress, and suddenly a general awareness of math at a deeper level becomes quite important. I find the original author's thesis to be narrow, cynical, and with a subtle complacency to separate of the populace into Brahmans and non-Brahmans.

Math focus - Physics and Logic (1)

pooh666 (624584) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081028)

I do wish that there was a course for Math that started with Physics instead of starting with number theory which is really what most math is connected to and then after that Algebra is taught as an abstract set of rules and tricks, rather than a set of powerful tools for logic and problem solving. Get rid of exercises in favor of nothing but "word problems" That will make the classes a lot more worth while. Calculus in physics is so easy and so cool, but lots of times you don't get to see that until you have reached collage physics which is just stupid. With those modes of thinking in place, nothing is out of reach.

With all lack of respect... (2, Interesting)

trurl7 (663880) | more than 3 years ago | (#34081046)

...for the emeritus professor, but he did not become "emeritus" early enough.

And did he seriously use "taxpayer dollars" as an argument? Is he trolling for local office or something? The entire debate over the usefulness of any form of learning is ultimately predicated over the false assumption that this learning needs to be justified. An educated nation is one that is more productive, more aware, and ultimately happier than its massively illiterate counterparts, irrespective of the moaning of certain truck drivers, soccer moms and ex-professors over enforced learning. I've yet to observe many happy, illiterate nations - in fact the only things they tend to excel at are genocidal warfare and mass starvation.

People, pay attention: no one cares about your objections to learning math; you don't like it, tough. You like your 9-5, do you? Somehow I don't hear you bitching and moaning how we should do away with work. Shove your ignorant objections and STOP getting in the way of those of us who can actually think, 'cause you know what? In the end, you'll be the sad marginalia in the history books emblematic of a "more ignorant age". The rest of us will be praised for advancing humanity.

So, again: stop getting in our way. You are not important. Neither are your opinions. Quit trolling from the pulpit. Btw, fundamentalist Christian ministers, you hearing me? That goes double for you.

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