Painters and Pure Mathematicians

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.

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15 Responses to “Painters and Pure Mathematicians”

  1. Kate Owens (@katemath) Says:

    I have three more things to add to the “Reasons Why I Was Annoyed” list. But it seems right now I only found time to write one of them, so here it is:

    I think the question, “Is math useful at work?” is annoying for the reasons you outline above having to do with the perils of usefulness as a major criterion for what we ought to teach. But I also object to the “at work” part of the question.

    There are thousands of things that I learned in school (before college) that I think are good to know, but not necessarily because I need them at work. Learning about American history helps me understand what they’re talking about on the news. Learning about literature gives me cultural context for art in my community. And I have certainly used plenty of pre-college mathematics in my home life, whether in figuring out our monthly budget, or computing the effect of different mortgage rates, or in figuring out how much Children’s Tylenol to give my kiddo when he’s sick.

    The purpose of childhood education is to teach us how to be better adults. But the purpose of being an adult is not to be a better worker! There’s so much more to life than just that!

  2. suevanhattum Says:

    Thank you both.

  3. bretbenesh Says:

    Here is Emilie Wiesner’s comments via Facebook:

    “Here are some other reasons why this article annoys me. Perhaps you can add them to your list! 1. Just because you _don’t_ use math at work doesn’t mean that using math wouldn’t make you better at your job. If you aren’t used to using math or aren’t comfortable with it, it may be easy to not even see what you are missing. 2. Work is not the only aspect of “life.” (How can you make informed decisions about your health or social policy, for example, without some understanding of statistics?? Or even fractions for that matter?) 3. Math is not just a set of computational techniques; it provides a perspective on understanding the world. (I don’t just mean this in the vague thinking-about-hard-things-is-good-for-you sense either. Mathematics leads to organizing information in particular ways, asking certain kinds of questions, and seeking certain kinds of solutions/answers. As a mathematician, I think this perspective leads me to insights that others don’t necessarily come up with. Other academic disciplines have equally valuable perspectives, but this is why I value the liberal arts in general!)”

  4. bretbenesh Says:

    And Aaron Weinberg’s comments, also from Facebook:

    “I’d second Emilie Wiesner’s and Bret Benesh’s list, and add/emphasize: The article equates “math” with “what gets ‘taught’ in school classrooms.” I’d agree that much of what gets “taught” is worthless, if not taught in the context of problem-solving, pattern-generalizing, conjecturing, etc.”

  5. Paul Hartzer Says:

    As far as I can tell, the study is based on asking people, “Do you use math at work?” and then tallying the results. If so, I don’t think that’s an effective methodology. I’ve spoken to people who use Excel every day who say they haven’t used any algebra since high school. When I pointed out that =A3*12 + A4/1.05 is algebra, they looked confused for a moment, then accepted that yes, they do use algebra.

  6. Kate Owens (@katemath) Says:

    Alright, hopefully now I have a moment to tell you the next two things to add to my “Reasons I was Annoyed” list about this article.

    (1) There is a difference between knowledge I use daily at work, and knowledge that I was required to have in order to get my job. My boss expects me to have a whole host of knowledge outside of what I use daily.

    Partly, this is because we might need to make use of it at some point in the future. For example, I know some stuff about elementary number theory that I haven’t used at work in a long time; nevertheless, my knowledge of this could come in helpful at my job at some point later. My boss also has the expectation that I am capable of participating in meaningful conversations with colleagues who share this same knowledge. A colleague might come to me for advice or collaboration, and sharing a common educational background would facilitate such discussions.

    I wonder if instead of asking employees, “Do you use math at work?” if we asked employers, “Would you hire someone who lacked a working knowledge of math topics beyond elementary school arithmetic?” what would happen. While a worker may not need to know the formulas from high school Algebra 2 as an explicit part of her daily job functions, it might still be the case that her employer expects to hire someone who has a general fluency with algebraic thinking. And I second the discussion above started by Paul: Many people don’t think what they do is “algebra” unless there are instructions, “Solve for x.” –whereas we as mathematicians have a much broader view of what would qualify as algebraic thinking.

    (2) I remember reading a while ago about the average number of careers/jobs held by someone in their early 40s. I think the statistic was something like four, as in, the average person will have four different jobs by the time their career stabilizes in their 40s. I don’t have a specific citation for this right now. Nevertheless, assuming it is roughly correct, if “only” 22% of workers use math beyond arithmetic, this does not imply that only 22% of people need to know math beyond arithmetic.

    There is a lot of career shuffling between “the other 78%” and the 22%, and very rarely can people tell into which group they will fall with great accuracy years in advance. Just because 78% of people can get by *at their current job* knowing only basic arithmetic, the chance that these workers either stay at that job, or move only to other jobs that require the same level of “un-knowledge” is small.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      I think I might just have Kate re-write the post for me. She is doing a better job. Bret

      On Tue, Apr 30, 2013 at 8:26 AM, Solvable by Radicals

  7. Here’s How Little I See Your Point | The Aperiodical Says:

    […] very well-written and thoughtful response to this has already been posted at mathematics professor Bret Benesh’s blog, which gives four reasons why the article annoyed him (and probably several other people […]

  8. Helen Says:

    the most annoying thing about the original article is that it uses graphical representation of data to illustrate its (so-called) points! What on earth does the author think that is?! Not only is it mathematics, but it’s some of the most recent, unintuitive and brilliant mathematics that any of us regularly use!! William Playfair charted price and income data in 1821 – generally regarded as the moment modern data viz was born!

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