Yes Professor, Math Is Necessary
I have to admit I am not sure where to begin. Like most math teachers, I have spent a good deal of my adult life defending the relevance of my subject to students, parents and other educators. I have observed the popular culture ridicule math in advertising; television shows and political speeches. How many times have you heard someone say, “Well of course I can’t do that, I was never very good at math.” But I never fathomed that I would have to defend the study of the subject to a college math professor.
It actually took me three readings of a recent Washington Post op-ed to get a handle on what the author was trying to say. The first reading left me confused—is this perhaps a “Modest Proposal” for math? After the second reading, I became slack-jawed in stunned disbelief. On the third run through I reached critical mass—these were clearly the most amazing assortment of negative statements ever attributed to a mathematician The object of this extended reading session was the op-ed in the Washington Post by University of Illinois at Chicago Math Professor G.V. Ramanathan. His primary position was to question whether there was any value for studying mathematics. The argument begins by comparing the process of learning math to superficial improvements to one’s appearance.
“…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.”
Professor Ramanathan adds:
“A lot of effort and money has been spent to make mathematics seem essential to everybody's daily life. There are even calculus textbooks showing how to calculate -- I am not making this up and in fact I taught from such a book -- the rate at which the fluid level in a martini glass will go down, assuming, of course, that one sips differentiably (sic). Elementary math books have to be stuffed with such contrived applications; otherwise they won't be published.”
Technically, I do agree with this particular point. The use of fluid level in a martini glass does seem a bit contrived. But what is the harm in trying to make an abstract discipline like mathematics more relevant to students using at least a million other, more appropriate, examples to illustrate the importance of the subject. Professor Ramanathan continues his questionable argument with the following:
“Unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everyday life. ...Most adults have no contact with math at work, nor do they curl up with an algebra book for relaxation.”
These statements cry out for a response.
Ignorance is not really bliss
I have not read anything by Shakespeare in decades. I did, however, learn much about human nature through the study of his work. These are lessons I still use in my life. I cannot recite the Constitution, The Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence. Would I be a better citizen if I had never studied them? I cannot recall ever using the principles of photosynthesis in my daily conversations. But I do believe I am enhanced by possessing an understanding of the interrelationship between myself and the plant world. Is math so much different than these subjects?
What is the value of a well-informed decision?
Professor Ramanathan’s primary contention is that there is little use for math for most people.
“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.”
I beg to differ. First of all, every one of those occupations mentioned are constantly using math whether it is to correlate measurements, determine the proper equipment, adjust dosage, or establish prices. More importantly mathematics is one of the most powerful tools anyone can wield when attempting to understand and interpret information. I could go on for fifteen or more pages condemning all of the professor’s contentions. I could bludgeon his arguments using numerous illustrations of his folly. But in lieu of all that verbiage, I will summarize my arguments using one example of the power of mathematics as a tool for understanding the world.
A few weeks ago Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News reported on a recent study of breast cancer and the use of hormone replacement in women. The numbers were ominous. After extensive research it was determined that a woman’s chances of having breast cancer would increase by 25% if she was on hormone therapy. A 25% increase in just about anything is huge. If your mortgage goes up by that much, foreclosure will soon follow. Similar growth in dropout rates, unemployment, violent crime, tuition, or auto accidents would be an automatic cause for alarm. But is an increase of 25% in the potential for a woman contracting breast cancer cause for the same degree of apprehension? Let’s do the math.
With a little research it was determined that the number of women in the general population who develop breast cancer is 0.4%. That number increases to 0.5% for those who use hormone replacement which is an increase of 25%. (Divide the increase of 0.1 by 0.4.) Four-tenths of a percent translates into four women out of every 1000. Five-tenths of a percent means that the number stricken with the disease will grow to five. Consequently, as the direct result of hormone replacement, the increased chance of having breast cancer is one in a thousand. Does this interpretation of the information make the correct decision obvious or easier? Absolutely not, but it does give an enhanced perspective to the reality of the situation.
This analysis did not take an understanding of calculus, differential equations or advanced statistics. It simply took a solid grounding in basic mathematics. The same process could be used to evaluate airline tickets (free baggage vs. fees), home loans, or a thousand other life decisions.
So please, Professor Ramanathan explain to me one more time why math literacy should not be a major goal of education.