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Does everyone need math?

Multicolored abacusAs part of our series of posts exploring a “question-centered” teaching approach, we asked Ian Stewart, author of Cows in the Maze and Math Hysteria, to give us his thoughts on the above question, featured in the new course Q Skills for Success.

Few of us make regular use of the math we were taught. Increasingly, clever gadgetry does all the sums for us. Why, then, do schools insist on teaching it to everybody?

It’s funny how math is always singled out for this question. ‘I never use any of the math I was taught,’ people moan. Speaking personally, I never use any of the history, geography, chemistry, physics, metalworking, poetry, or Shakespeare that I was taught. Or soccer, for that matter.

But no one asks why those things were included in the syllabus. We are taught all these things for many reasons: it’s part of being a well-rounded person; it trains the mind or the body; it keeps kids off the streets; it helps us to understand our world and our place in it; and it offers us more employment opportunities. The same goes for math.

But there’s another reason. Everything taught in school math — algebra, trig, whatever — is of vital importance in some major area of human activity. Thousands of applications of mathematics directly affect our daily life: finding new sources of oil; finding efficient ways to target customers for online sales; sat-nav; cellphones; the Internet; jet airliners; medical scans; even keeping our water safe.

We seldom notice, because the role of math is to make things easier for us, so by the time anything affects us directly the math is hidden away where it can do its work quietly without further human intervention.

Which means we don’t need the math, right? Wrong. We don’t need it to use the gadgets. But where did the gadgets come from?

Suppose that, at the age of ten, say, we told 90% of schoolchildren ‘Math is too hard for you, you don’t want to make the effort, you won’t be able to learn it. So we’re going to make life easy for you: you don’t have to do it.’ Sighs of relief all round. ‘Oh, by the way, that means you will never be able to become an engineer, an airline pilot, a financial analyst, a doctor, an optician, a computer programmer, a statistician…’ The parents would be screaming that we were violating their children’s rights.

We would also be killing our society. We wouldn’t be training enough mathematically competent people to keep everything running, let alone invent whatever new gadgets and methods will be needed in the future.

Find out how you can use questions like “Does everyone need math?” in class.


Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Digital Media Fellow at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of Cows in the Maze and Math Hysteria (OUP).

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