I recall nothing of trigonometry and physics, except the feeling of nausea as the teacher filled the blackboard with a mystifying jumble of numbers and letters (the infernal, elusive x!). Higher math, I assumed at the time, was created for the sole purpose of adding to teenagers’ misery and self-loathing—the academic equivalent of acne. This awful memory comes to mind because my daughter Jessica is now taking trig and physics in her junior year of high school. Jessie is a better math student than I was, but she shares the family predilection for English, history, and verbal subjects, and will not be making a career in engineering or science. So why must she break her brain on quadratic equations?In case you want to see the original article to which Falk refers, check out How to Fix Our Math Education.
Two brave mathematicians have stepped forward to argue she need not. In a column in The New York Times, Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford say algebra, trig, and calculus are wasted on those of us with no aptitude for higher math. Students clearly not headed for science or engineering careers, they propose, should track to courses that provide “quantitative literacy”—the ability to handle our own finances, understand percentages and probability and risk, and intelligently assess what “experts” like banks and doctors and politicians tell us about the mathematics of real life. The desperate need for literacy of this sort is indisputable: The average American carries more than $6,000 in credit-card debt; about half of all retirees have saved less than a quarter of what they will need; and our elected leaders convince the gullible it’s possible to balance budgets while preserving their benefits and cutting their taxes. Why keep fiddling with x, while Rome burns?
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