That title was lifted from a Washington Post essay by G.V. Ramanathan, a professor emeritus of mathematics, statistics and computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
For my Twitter- and text-obsessed readers, I’ll answer the question immediately: for me, a lot. For ordinary citizens, not that much. Ramanathan’s take is not much different:
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.
There are three steps to this kind of aggressive marketing. The first is to convince people that white teeth, a full head of hair and a sculpted physique are essential to a good life. The second is to embarrass those who do not possess them. The third is to make people think that, since a good life is their right, they must buy these products.
So it is with math education. 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. Elementary math books have to be stuffed with such contrived applications; otherwise they won’t be published.
Many of the citizens I meet, after hearing that I’m teaching calculus, all tell me something along the lines of, “Oh, I wish I knew calculus. I even bought a book that explained it, but I haven’t been able to read it.” It’s even worse when people hear that I’m a statistician: that’s when they notice that their glasses are empty and need immediate refilling.
I can attest to use of asinine examples in math books, too. The textbook I use for my Algebra Sans Algebra class assumes the reader is a child. There are pictures galore: of candy bars, popsicles, soda pop, of skiing, sledding, snowboarding, or dollars bills, ten dollar bills, hundred dollar bills, all tied to goofy “mathematical” examples. The publisher must surmise that students will not assimilate the math unless it is turned into a Saturday morning cartoon. The writer of that book, incidentally, uses more exclamation marks than even I do. Sorry: that should read than even I do!
You can see attempts at embarrassing the public in popular books written by mathematicians bemoaning the innumeracy of common folk and how it is supposed to be costing billions; books about how mathematicians have a more clever way of reading the newspaper than the masses; and studies purportedly showing how much dumber our kids are than those in Europe and Asia.
Buried in there is a good dig at There-Is-No-God bandwagon book-writer mathematician and newspaper reader John Allen Paulos (I liked Paulos’s first book; but then he turned literary).
Ramanathan asks the important question: “how effective are [the] educational creams and gels?” More government money taken from citizens and applied liberally to the educational bureaucracy has not made the situation better. In fact, statistically speaking, there is a robust negative correlation with money and mathematical education. This implies that we should spend less to learn more!
In a true college education, all should know at least calculus, and then perhaps some analysis or linear algebra, perhaps number theory, certainly a smattering of probability. But for the ordinary citizen, addition, multiplication, and some geometry are all they need and—be honest—all they can master.
So what if most people can’t integrate? Not everybody can master dunking a basketball through a crowd of 250-pound, elbow-throwing, impolite sweaty behemoths either. Nor can everybody read through a ream of 350-years of common law to distill a point of legal philosophy. And so on.
There are plenty of areas of expertise that are unattainable for most of us. Having a firm grip on the basics for these areas is enough. There will always be enough people who have the smarts and the desire to go into math: we needn’t browbeat the rest of their society for their inability or lack of desire. Being good at math is no different than being tall.
As Ramanathan says, “Those who do love math and science have been doing very well. Our graduate schools are the best in the world [and] produced about 140 Nobel laureates since 1983…” I don’t love the idea of measuring success by the number of trophies given by an organization that called Yasser Arafat a peacemaker, but we get the idea. The States are doing fine at the top.
The real problem are the number of people we unleash on the world thinking they know math because they have a piece of paper which says they do.
Thanks to reader James Erlandson for bringing this article to my attention.