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Mathematical Illiteracy

Adair Lara is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. In January of 1997 she wrote a piece about math in which she implied that the study of math was a tortuous, pointless exercise. The column was lighthearted and left room for a dissenting view but, for me, it dredged up ugly high-school memories of the self-righteous pomposity with which the ‘liberal arts’ clique derogated the ‘math rocks’ and ‘science rocks’ as some inferior type of creature. There is a general attitude in our culture that to be mathematically illiterate is not only acceptable but, perhaps, a source of pride — proof that you are a broad and open-minded thinker, not constrained to the ‘linear’ and ‘mechanical’ modes of thought required for mathematical rigor. As you might surmise, I disagree.

I was outraged by this piece, and sent a response to Ms. Lara the same evening in the form of a satire of her column.

In the cold light of morning, my response seemed harsher than I had intended, but it was too late to recall it. Ms. Lara, however, took it with good spirit, and ended up (after asking my permission) excerpting a large portion of it in a follow-on column several days later. Here it is in its entirety.

18 January 1997

Dear Ms. Lara,

Last night Lisa and Spartacus and I all sat at the kitchen table. Lisa was reviewing the latest statistical abstract of the United States propped up on a bowl of apples, I was reviewing a cancer study for a friend at Stanford, and Spartacus was doing his English literature homework, or rather not doing it. Most of the time he had his head on the table, saying, “I just can’t do it. I can’t take English any more. What’s wrong with becoming a manual laborer, anyway? I like manual labor.”

This is the point where a good dad would point out how valuable it is to have a grasp of the principles of good writing, how he personally had been discouraged by literature at first, but then went on to experience the infinite sweet joys of playing with words.

And I wanted to. But I had caught a glimpse of his open textbook. “Simile and Metaphor,” it said. I shuddered, and moved a carton of milk over to shelter me from that black march of words and periods and commas.

I haven’t read or written a single paragraph, other than a menu or a grocery list, since I was in high school myself. I don’t write letters to friends, I don’t read the instructions for my new appliances, I don’t try to find the underlying assumptions in any opinion pieces by juxtaposing the explicit statements with whatever it is you juxtapose them with. I have written no epics, analyzed no essays, crafted no novellas.

The English I was forced to learn in high school, the hours spent with my head on my arm puzzling over viewpoint and meter and foreshadowing at a pale scratched-up desk while kites wheeled in the bright blue sky outside my window, was time that dropped through a black hole in my universe. Every minute I spent in English was a minute spent feeling stupid and dull, a geek with nothing between his earmuffs….

….Yet the truth for me is that every day since high school has been lightened, made infinitely more worth living, by the absence of reading and writing. Leaving English behind is like getting your driver’s license: one of those hurdles you’re over for good. Passing the entrance exam that meant I would have to take no English in college, and thus no English ever again, gave me the same feeling I had when my second child was a boy to go with my girl: This they can never take away from me. I will always have my boy, and I will never read or write again.

In the meantime, Spartacus will find out that it’s almost worth taking English for the same reason that it’s almost worth wearing your shoes a size too small: because it feels so good to stop.

* * * *

I suspect this sounds as ignorant to you as it does to me: how could anyone seriously advocate illiteracy as a refreshing, freeing lifestyle choice? Who would declare proudly and defiantly that reading and writing were a bothersome waste of time with which they had completely and thankfully dispensed?

No one I know. Yet, as you have by now (I hope) noticed, replace “English” with “math” in these paragraphs and it becomes your column from Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle.

I would not pretend that math, particularly as it is taught in many of our schools (public and private), is never tedious, or irrelevant, or unrewarding, or difficult, or downright tortuous. Most intellectual endeavors — including the study of literature and poetry and art — are all of these at various times and at various levels of student ability. That does not mean they are not worth pursuing.

Mathematics is more than figuring out whether Bob or Sue has more peanuts, or what the length is of line segment AB. Mathematics is a model of the nature of existence; it is an intellectual framework for solving complex problems; it is a practical tool for describing and changing the world around us; it is a means to picture the underlying elegance and beauty of raw nature. The questions posed — and occasionally answered — by mathematical endeavor range from the most mundane issues, of how to make your paycheck last the month or figure the tip on your restaurant bill, to the most fundamental, of what is the nature of reality.

And, if that is not enough, it is also fundamental to understanding the decisions, large and small, that affect our daily lives, from which risks are worth taking and which aren’t, to whether we can really afford universal access to health care, to how much to spend on eliminating pollution, to whether to sell your house now or later. A public ignorant of the underlying mathematical questions implicit in these issues will make bad decisions, and we will all be worse off for them.

In closing, I would like to recommend to you, and to anyone else for whom mathematics seems irrelevant to their lives, a book by John Allen Paulos called Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences. It is an easy read, entertaining and thoughtful and not too preachy, that illustrates some of the ways in which mathematics, contrary to popular opinion, touches our lives in ways we rarely consider.

© Copyright 1997, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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