How much math do we really need?

This was the title of Saturday’s post by G.V. Ramanathan in The Washington Post, and it reminded me of the best one-liner I ever delivered in the classroom. One of my students—in an effort to derail the lesson into a more interesting side discussion—asked the perennial question, but with one significant change to the pronoun:

Kevin: “Mr. Marti, when do you ever really need to use math?”

Me: “Every day. I’m a math teacher.”

The class erupted into laughter, and I got a compliment from one student on the cleverness of my response, but like the very few good jokes I ever made in the classroom, it was completely unintentional. It was simply my immediate, honest response.

Anyway, back to Prof. Ramanathan. He makes the analogy between mathematics education reform and the marketing of beauty products, essentially saying that we are being manipulated into believing mathematics is much more important than it really is, at least for most people, and that “all the mathematics one needs in real life can be learned in early years without much fuss.”

So once again, allow me to simply give my immediate, honest response.

Prof. Ramanathan: “How much math do you really need in everyday life?”

Me: “A great deal. I’m a math editor.”

OK, so that’s not funny—just like whenever I ever tried to use the same joke a second time in the classroom—but it is true. I suppose that I have a niche job, and that I’m part of the elite few that even Prof. Ramanathan would admit are still needed.

But the truth is that I find myself using my quantitative and analytic skills more and more in unexpected ways, especially in the workplace, as the technology that surrounds us keeps changing and evolving. In particular, the exposure I’ve had to programming languages, both as a student and as a teacher, has served me extraordinarily well in the last few years as an ever increasing amount of what we experience is transmitted via HTML.

I’ve also done a good deal of video editing over the last couple of years. This clearly seems like a realm that will not be the exclusive purview of the math nerd elite, yet the single biggest issue in delivering video via the web is data compression. Each video I produce requires me to choose many different quantitative settings—some of these have a linear relationship with file size, and some have a non-linear relationship.

Were you able to understand the last sentence I wrote? If so, you have learned some of the central mathematical ideas needed to be a fluent reader in an increasingly technological world, and certainly needed to be employable in many of the current and future jobs that this world has to offer.

The one part of Prof. Ramanathan’s logic that I can buy into is the marketing of beauty products analogy, but I think he has been hood-winked like most of us into believing that mathematics is in fact a limited set of basic calculation skills devoid of inherent interest. As he puts it, “There is no obligation to love math any more than grammar, composition, curfew or washing up after dinner.”

I see the gels and creams as akin to the textbooks that result from misguided educational policies and the extreme consolidation of the textbook publishing industry. The marketing of this homogenized curriculum, while dazzling in its array of bells and whistles intended to mask the drab face of its pedagogical approach, just further reinforces the belief that math is boring and unimportant.

Mathematics is fascinating and helps explain many things. It is much more than calculations. Take this blog as an example. Go to your browser and choose Page Source from the View menu. There is a tremendous amount of mathematical logic involved here, and yet no calculations, no fractions, and no arithmetic.

So here is my question to Prof. Ramanathan:

“How much math do you really need to understand how information is shared?”

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