Tuesday, February 15, 2011


More Than You MIght Think

There was a recent WaPo Op-Ed by a mathematician wondering:
How much math do we really need?
Quite a bit actually.

G.V. Ramanathan makes a reasonably compelling case against how math is "marketed" in order to get funding and education priority:
Unfortunately, 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.


We need to ask two questions. First, how effective are these educational creams and gels? With generous government grants over the past 25 years, countless courses and conferences have been invented and books written on how to teach teachers to teach. But 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.
Agreed - it's not working. But then:
The second question is more fundamental: How much math do you really need in everyday life? Ask yourself that -- and also the next 10 people you meet, say, your plumber, your lawyer, your grocer, your mechanic, your physician or even a math teacher.

Unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everyday life. That courses such as "Quantitative Reasoning" improve critical thinking is an unsubstantiated myth.
It may be "unsubstantiated," but I will tell you this - even in my now 30 year old formal education mathematics either as math or as science was the only place I was taught to reason. The philosoph6y department no longer taught a symbolic logic course and the lit department was all about how what I read "made me feel." Sweet reason existed only in math and the sciences.

This guy is right - math is exceedingly poorly taught, mostly becasue math teachers are mathematicians - some of the most boring people on the planet. I learned all of my math above calculus, diff eq, linear algebra and the like, in the course of DOING science, becasue the associated math classes were dull beyond my level of tolerance. The guy is also right that one does not need to know calculus to drive a car down the road.

But calculus does help tremendously when making investments - not that one needs to be able to calculate anything but simply knowing how to think about things differentially. And since other disciplines do not teach how to think anymore - we cannot abandon math.

To reach the conclusions Ramanathan does one is not abandoning math, one is abandoning reason -and that dear friends is the end of western civilization.

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