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Math Education Science

How Much Math Do We Really Need? 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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How Much Math Do We Really Need?

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  • A little more (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tomun ( 144651 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:05PM (#34080700)

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

    • Re:A little more (Score:5, Insightful)

      by RabbitWho ( 1805112 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:09PM (#34080736) Homepage Journal
      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.
      • by modmans2ndcoming ( 929661 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:20PM (#34080860)

        I was just thinking the same thing!!

        Are you listening to my thoughts?

      • Re:A little more (Score:4, Interesting)

        by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) * on Sunday October 31, 2010 @03:07PM (#34081410)

        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.

        Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house. -- Robert A. Heinlein

        I once read that quote to my father, who studied nuclear physics at the University of Rome, and had been an electronics engineer for much of his career, and I remember him saying, "Well, I'm sure he believes that." Personally, speaking as a software engineer, I do wish I had studied more higher math in college, because it would help me do more. More and better mental tools rarely hurt. But, to be honest, that really hasn't affected my earning power in the slightest.

        • Re:A little more (Score:4, Insightful)

          by nomadic ( 141991 ) <nomadicworld@gmai l . c om> on Sunday October 31, 2010 @03:36PM (#34081728) Homepage
          Heinlein was a classic narcissist. He had an engineering and math background, and believing himself to be the apogee of human existence, decided that what he knew was what people should know. Of course that narcissism made 80% of his novels wish fulfillment fantasies featuring himself as a veiled main character, which in turn made them pretty lousy books.
          • by HungryHobo ( 1314109 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @04:17PM (#34082136)

            his books did get really creepy when he got older...

            But he does have some fantastic quotes:

            there's the classic
            "Specialization is for insects"
            look it up.

            and then a few other golden ones

            "Progress doesn't come from early risers -- progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things."

            "The whole principle is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak."
            (On censorship)

            "Age is not an accomplishment, and youth is not a sin."

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by gozar ( 39392 )

              "The whole principle is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak." (On censorship)

              Apparently he liked Mark Twain also:

              Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it. - Mark Twain.

    • Wot no Google? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Colin Smith ( 2679 )

      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: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TerranFury ( 726743 )

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

      I don't know. All the math gives you is measure theory and some operations on sets. What you're talking about is getting outside the purview of mathematics. Now you're talking about philosophy, almost metaphysics...

      Me, I "get" Kolmogorov's axioms, but I still don't truly understand how they map to reality -- or why we should believe that they do. And among people who do believe that probability theory describes reality, there isn't even really agreement; you've got Bayesians (and isn't this point of vie

  • Exponential growth (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Teckla ( 630646 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:06PM (#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: (Score:3, Insightful)

      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: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by agrif ( 960591 )

        I, for one, hope they continue to teach calculus in schools.

        Everything you learn up to calculus is basically arithmetic. With algebra, you get into some more complicated math, but it still seems like just adding and multiplying, which you've been doing for years by then. It's not really very interesting.

        But calculus, oh boy. There is some interesting mathematics in there. In fact, I'd say that this is the first exposure students get to "real" math, with analysis rolled in for fun. Not to mention with calcul

    • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:36PM (#34081094)

      I see another angle of this "how much math do we really need?" notion.

      If we all lived in a country, like China, where we didn't pick our leaders, then no, we really don't need to understand much math, and we don't even need to understand exponential growth, because theoretically, smarter, better-educated people are studying those issues you list and making decisions for everyone. This is why China can get away with a one-child-per-couple policy even though I'm sure it's not exactly popular.

      However, in democratic countries like ours, every moron has a vote, so politicians pander to the lowest common denominator. So the higher you can raise that denominator, the better off society will be in the long term, because effectively, we're all making the decisions by electing our leaders, and if the bulk of the population is ignorant of the effects of exponential growth, disaster will eventually ensue.

  • Not much (Score:4, Funny)

    by bitslinger_42 ( 598584 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:07PM (#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 (Score:5, Funny)

      by RabbitWho ( 1805112 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:14PM (#34080786) Homepage Journal
      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 (Score:4, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:18PM (#34080832)


        O I C Y U Got fired.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by IICV ( 652597 )

        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.

    • by simonbp ( 412489 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:17PM (#34080824) Homepage

      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.

      • by Culture20 ( 968837 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:40PM (#34081128)

        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.

        That explains why so many physicists don't understand that Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment was a literary euphemism for sex.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Chemisor ( 97276 )

      > 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: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by NekSnappa ( 803141 )
        I thought the same thing when I first read that post. But I heard the on coming whooshing sound early enough to divert it.
    • Re:Not much (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:20PM (#34080864) Homepage Journal

      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.

    • by woodsrunner ( 746751 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @03:39PM (#34081754) Journal
      Speaking as someone who has a degree in English Literature, I can safely say I use the maths every day. Although I should preface that I work as an analyst and the fields of mathematics I do the most research result in receiving an inordinate amount of CIA recruiting adverts from google adsense. On the upside, I can google "eclipse" and get zero vampire results.

      That I ended up in a maths intensive vocation is not unusual. I didn't realise it at the time, but as a kid I had freakish abilities. I just thought it was not unusual. Actually, I believed my teachers who thought I was retarded. I could score 99th percentile on the maths portions of standardised testing, I just couldn't read, write or speak and was severely withdrawn.

      Part of this was due to the fact that my father taught me the three R's at an early age and let me write left handed. At school I was required to switch to be right handed. Much later, a teacher advised me to try typing and it helped a lot.

      Rather than pursue an Honours Engineering course at University of Illinois, I majored in Lit and Philosophy at a small liberal arts college to become a part of society. I had a fear of becoming an alienated scientist bullied by the same jocks from school into making nuclear weapons.

      One could argue that there's no need to pursue literacy beyond the basics. And the author of the article mentions this. But really, what a dismal waste of one's life. It reminds me of the cliché Italian mobster who justifies a sociopath existence banking on a deathbed prayer can absolve him and get him to heaven -- it shows a true lack of understanding in the concept of statistics and risk analysis that someone in that line of work will even have a death bed beyond an unexpectedly cold sidewalk.

      Society as it is far too unaware and lost. Literature, Science and Math are what glue our society together. Without it, there's just bread and circus and a general abuse of nerds. Do we really want a culture that would murder Archimedes or make a lampshade out of Einstein or Godel? It's not like we're that removed from that culture of violence today.

      Life without intellectual stimulation is a banquet of white bread and margarine washed down with kool-aid while watching the football on the big screen. You can say it's adequate, but it's not my cup of tea.

      Yes, one may rarely use the quadratic equation in everyday life, but that doesn't mean the neuron pathways developed in learning this formula doesn't help one make more rational and strategically better decisions in subject matter far removed from the ethereal world of numbers.

      Math is neither an art, nor a science; it is the magic that holds the two hemispheres together; writing code seems to be a composite of both: poetry with numbers.

      Sure one could do without either, but as Calvin's tiger Hobbes said, without it would be "nasty, brutish and short." For society's sake, we need more maths. I teach junior high economics and personal budgeting through JA and believe me when the teacher asks you quietly after class how to calculate percentages, you know mathematics is not valued enough in our culture.

      Something to consider today, the birthday of John Keats, a man who so beautifully combined poetry and science to envision discoveries, such as the workings of the nervous system, not to be revealed through the scientific method for some time later.
  • by CheshireCatCO ( 185193 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:09PM (#34080732) Homepage

    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"?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:21PM (#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.

    • by gman003 ( 1693318 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:21PM (#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.
  • The way we think (Score:5, Insightful)

    by raving griff ( 1157645 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:09PM (#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 (Score:5, Insightful)

      by nten ( 709128 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:20PM (#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.

    • by jpmorgan ( 517966 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:34PM (#34081070) Homepage

      Indeed. I have a mathematical background, but many years ago considered going to law school. I spoke to several practicing lawyers about the experience; one of the questions I wanted to know was how much my undergraduate degree would put me at a disadvantage compared to those with history, political science, or literature degrees.

      Invariably, the answer was that a strong math background, as opposed to social sciences or humanities, turns out to be a strength. Engineers, and mathematicians usually do best in law school. People with a strong math education understand logical argument, whether it be in symbols and numbers, or in words. The emotional, rhetoric-laden argument style that humanities teaches doesn't hold water in the legal profession, because judges are usually very sharp and aren't going to fall for that shit.

      So yes, mathematics education is critically important because it teaches you how to solve problems and answer questions with reason, not feelings.

  • by sootman ( 158191 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:12PM (#34080774) Homepage Journal

    ... 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.

  • Why anything else? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by heyetv ( 248750 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:12PM (#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.

    • by xtal ( 49134 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:26PM (#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.

    • by Tumbleweed ( 3706 ) * on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:33PM (#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 (Score:4, Interesting)

    by nten ( 709128 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:14PM (#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.

  • Math is not an end (Score:4, Insightful)

    by biryokumaru ( 822262 ) <> on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:14PM (#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.

  • Demonstrable results (Score:3, Interesting)

    by simonbp ( 412489 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:15PM (#34080806) Homepage

    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.

  • by etymxris ( 121288 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:16PM (#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 problem is (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JamesP ( 688957 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:18PM (#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.

  • by giuseppemag ( 1100721 ) <> on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:18PM (#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 doesn't suck (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Culture20 ( 968837 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:25PM (#34080942)
    Danica McKellar said so, and she's prettier than G.V. Ramanathan.
  • Precisely (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cheekyjohnson ( 1873388 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:28PM (#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).

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Tangentc ( 1637287 )

      Not all of us knew what we wanted to do in middle school.

      I thought through middle school and high school that I wanted to be a professional musician, but after one year of that in college I decided to study chemistry, which I wouldn't have known I liked had I not been forced to take it in high school, nor would I be able to study it had I not been forced to go through trigonometry and advanced algebra.

      tl;dr You're required to study different subjects in school because there can only be so many firemen and v

  • by wickerprints ( 1094741 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:30PM (#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.

  • by smoothnorman ( 1670542 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:31PM (#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.
  • by presidenteloco ( 659168 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:35PM (#34081078)

    "90% of this game is one-half mental"

    Seriously, though: Large scale serious problems like global warming, ecological services calculations, etc require
    a deep and broad grasp of math and logic.

    Understanding geopolitical problems and economic problems
    at a fundamental level requires understanding of the math of complex systems.

    In short:
    - If you want to be in charge, and do the wrong things, you can get by without math and without believing in what
      math and science say about the world.
    - If you want to be in charge and do the right things, you need deep insight into mathematical and scientific
    explanations of aspects of the world and aspects of collective societal behavior.
    - If you want to vote for the people who will do the wrong things on the big problems and opportunities, you
    can get by without math.
    - If you want to vote for the people who will do the right things on the big problems and opportunities, you need lots
    of math to figure out who's probably on the best track to viable solutions.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:43PM (#34081160) Homepage

    The math people really need to survive in a very dynamic society involves probability, statistics, and estimation. Schools rarely teach how to estimate something within 10-20%, yet that's an enormously valuable skill. Being able to decide what to throw out of an estimation without losing too much accuracy is essential.

    Kids should know enough probability to estimate the odds on the local lottery. They should know what an "expectation" is, and what zero-sum and negative-sum games are and how to recognize them. They should be able to calculate the odds of dying in a terrorist attack and in an auto accident. They should know the risk/reward calculation for various career choices. They need to understand the concept of exposure to interest rate variations in loans and investments.

    Plane geometry, Euclid proof style, could probably be dropped with no loss. (I've done animation physics engines and GPS calculations, and I didn't use that stuff. Analytical geometry, yes; straightedge and compass proofs, no.)

  • by jdb2 ( 800046 ) * on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:44PM (#34081176) Journal
    Hmmm.... I wonder what would have happened if this guy would have lived circa 1853 right before Bernhard Riemann invented calculus on smooth manifolds, also known as Riemannian Geometry. Maybe Riemann would have been discouraged and scrapped his work. Too bad, since that work, which had no useful applications at the time, would turn out to be the core mathematics Einstein needed to complete General Relativity some 61 years later.

    Math is the language that describes the universe. Stop pursuing new heights in math an you will never reach new heights in reality.

  • Extend the question (Score:3, Interesting)

    by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Sunday October 31, 2010 @02:49PM (#34081232)
    How much schooling does an average person need?

    Based on the low, low standards this guy seesm to be advocating, most individuals don't need to be able to read more than the back of a cereal packet, have any clue about any foreign languages, be able to write anything their spell-checkers won't fix or learn any manual skills: such as cooking (we've got microwaves), handyman (can drive to the home centre) or anything more than turning on the TV or the computer.

    So what's the point in staying at school past age 10?

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