Scott McLeod wrote a great article about taking the ACT again (he is an education professor). Basically, the state of Iowa wants to make the ACT a requirement for high schoolers. Scott challenged some of the deciders to take the test. Jason Glass took him up on the challenge, provided Scott also take the ACT. They did, and Scott writes about it in the link.
I really liked the article, but I have a problem with one sentence:
My biggest concerns about the math test relate to the fact that much of what is assessed is math that – and I think I’m safe saying this – most of us will never use again (how many of you have needed to calculate the cosine of an angle recently? how many of you have needed to determine the formula of a circle on a standard coordinate plane?)
I actually do not disagree with this—I agree that most people will never think about a cosine again after graduating. However, I think that this is a dangerous quote for him to write (and I will tell him that in his comments). Most of my readers will probably agree that it is important for citizens to be mathematically literate, so I will not belabor that. My issue is that Scott has a double standard for mathematics.
Why is mathematics singled out for its lack necessity in “real life?” I gave myself one minute to think of a list of topics I learned in school that I never use in my non-professional life:
- Playing the trumpet
- Understanding The Tempest
- The treble clef
- Understanding the causes of the Civil War
- Understanding how a bill becomes a law
- Understanding the effects of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act
- How to speak Spanish
- What happens when an iron rod goes through your head
- How to make paper
- The structure of an atom
- What happens when you shoot a blowgun at a monkey
I use almost nothing that I learned in school in my non-professional life, save for my reading comprehension skills and some writing skills (and my skills from my 9th grade Introduction to Keyboarding class; that class definitely paid off). Granted, some of these skills could be useful (Spanish, in particular), but they aren’t currently in my life. If we demand that mathematics be useful, it seems like we should demand that everything be useful.
The irony is that mathematics is useful; it is just that not everyone needs to know it. While most people do not ever use cosines, they should be happy that someone knew how to use cosines when creating their iPod/television/wireless signal/etc.
I suppose that one argument is: most people may not play the trumpet/read Shakespeare/do art, but some people might later decide to do it as a hobby. If that is the case, we should be offering classes in beer, sex and World of Warcraft to high schoolers.
I think that it is worth asking whether mathematics should be taught, but only as part of the larger question: Why do we educate people at all? What are our goals? If mathematics fits into it, great. Otherwise, we should change things. But I think our goal is not “teach students things they will use every day in life.” Otherwise, Shakespeare and art are out; Microsoft Word and changing diapers are in.