The Atlantic posted an article this week with the title Here’s How Little Math Americans Actually Use at Work. The article is a good summary of what it is about.
This article annoyed me for four reasons. First, I do not think that the data in the article support its conclusion that people do not use much math at work. It cites that 94% of people use “any math,” which alone makes the title seem ridiculous (would they be happy with 96%? 99%? Would it have to be 100%?). The have a better point that only 22% of workers use any mathematics beyond arithmetic and fractions. But is this number actually low? Would at least one out of every five workers use American history at work? Science? French? Phy Ed? The only school subject that I can think of that would be higher is “English,” since many workers have to write at work. A better, less-provocative-and-more-accurate headline would be “Here’s How Much Math Americans Actually Use at Work.”
Next, I am annoyed because I feel that math teachers are largely the cause of this. As a community, we have put a lot of effort into teaching students that they should care about mathematics because it is useful. While this is true, we would have done a much better job motivating students if we had spent the same amount of energy switching to more effective pedagogies. And I can see why people like the author of the above article might be concerned: students were promised that mathematics would be useful, and then they feel let down/lied to/vindicated when 78% of the workforce only uses at most elementary school mathematics in their jobs (Edit: Thanks to Kate Owens for catching an arithmetic mistake here).
I am also annoyed at the double-standard. I have written about this before. But it still bothers me that mathematics is held to a different standard than other school subjects precisely because it is so useful, but then people (like the author of the Atlantic article) suggest that we over-emphasize mathematics because it is not useful enough. As I stated in the previous paragraph, I think that this is largely the fault of the mathematics community.
Finally, I am annoyed as a pure mathematician that my subject is being perverted. A quote from a recent This American Life (Episode 493: “Picture Show”) sums up my feelings beautifully. The show talks about how art is often traded, held, and re-traded as a commodity like wheat or corn. One artist found her works traded in this market and reflects:
“Painters really paint because there is sort of like this beautiful magic moment in it, you know. And after you are constantly making stuff all of the time, and people are buying stuff, and then they are flipping paintings, and it is all about money—it’s like you, you just crave for that magic moment again. It becomes corrupted if you let it.”
Replacing “painters” with “pure mathematicians” leads to an accurate description of how I felt when I read the Atlantic article. I do mathematics because of the magic moment. The article seems as ridiculous to me as if someone wrote an article suggesting we should consider eliminating art classes because very few people have to paint the walls of their office as part of their job.