Why Math Matters

Yesterday I had an interesting discussion with a former student about math. That’s right: math.

The Women’s Studies department I teach in has a sort of open adjunct/student lounge with computers and a small library and a table and such — a place to hang out and get a little work done or chat online or whatever. This student was working on some algebra, and was clearly frustrated. She turns to me and says, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?! When am I ever going to need to know about imaginary numbers?”

Two things you should know about me. First, I started my academic career as an engineering major — aerospace, to be precise. While I quickly bailed out of engineering, I have a great respect for the applied sciences, and the sciences in general.

Second, I’m a strong believer in the “Renaissance man” idea (though I’d like to give a hat tip to all the Renaissance women out there, too), and in the principles of the Enlightenment, and in the idea of a well-rounded liberal education. That is, I think that it’s important to know a lot of stuff about a lot of topics, just to get by in the world.

“You need to know it,” I said, “because it’s the core of the physical sciences. Because it’s the closest we are able to come to understanding how the world works.” I spent some time talking about e and natural logs and Golden Rectangles and nautilus shells and such.

I was clearly losing her. Blah blah blah. I re-grouped.

“You need to know this because science education in our society is dismal. Because there are people out there who want to control you, and who will use the fact that Americans know virtually nothing about science to exercise that control. So when you go in to get birth control, someone will deny it because they think it’s the same thing as abortion, which it clearly isn’t.”

The biggest debates in our society right now are science debates: stem-cell research, abortion, cloning, genetically-modified foods, the energy crisis, global warming, the status of gay, lesbian, bi, and trans persons, and more. And most Americans are “funnels” on all these matters — they take in huge amounts of blather from the media and other sources, and uncritically spit it out the other side.

Science isn’t going to resolve all these debates. Science is not and never has been or will be the end-all-be-all of knowledge. As a card-carrying postmodernist, I’m dutifully aware of the cultural-constructedness of scientific knowledge. BUT science is certainly part of the way we as a society have to deal with these issues — not just the facts and figures that science produces, but the mindset that science inculcates, the critical and evidence-based consideration of those facts and figures.

An effort called ScienceDebate2008 has emerged to get this year’s presidential candidates to devote an entire debate to issues of science policy. There really are no excuses for our candidates to decline a science-based debate — but I’m sure that’s what they’ll do. Neither Obama nor McCain (nor Clinton, if she wins the nomination, which I kind of doubt) is going to risk looking absolutely idiotic on national television while the “geeks” and “nerds” grill them. But I still think we have to make them say “No”, to get into the public consciousness just how crucial this stuff is and to force the candidates to acknowledge that — and risk everything by becoming the anti-science candidate. So sign the petition.

More importantly, start talking about science. Start learning about science — I promise, there’s very little that’s painfully dull. Grab a copy of Galileo’s Commandment, which highlights the best science writing in Western history, or Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and go from there. Make an effort, a real, concerted effort, to explain to your kids why math matters, why this goofy crap they have to learn in Algebra or Pre-Calc or Geometry matter, how it relates to the “real” world. And, of course, resist with all your might the wrong-headed, wrongly-implemented, and entirely bad-faith-based No Child Left Behind, especially it’s implicit rejection of science along with the arts, world culture, social science, and indeed, reason itself.

No comments yet to Why Math Matters

  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much for linking
    Thanks so much for linking to my site, Dustin. I love reading your work, both here and at Lifehack.

    I also like the ideas you present here. Math and science give us tools to think in different ways: these fields are about ideas as well as processes, just like the humanities are about processes as well as ideas.

    Thanks again!


  • Anonymous

    Loren: Oh, yeah! I shared it
    Loren: Oh, yeah! I shared it from Google Reader. I forget that when I “share” something, it actually *is* shared :-)

    Well, now that my brain has reconciled itself with its actions, let me just say that I’m happy to link to Writing Power. The new site should be launched by the end of the month (provided I stop replying to comments and get some work done…). Sign up for the email list at writerstechnology.com and you’ll see when posts start going live. (Plug plug plug)

  • Anonymous

    I’m all signed up!
    I’m all signed up!

    Looking forward to it,

  • Anonymous

    When I used to teach 5th
    When I used to teach 5th grade, I put so much emphasis on math and science, via literature. Plus, hands on activities galore. Science and math are meant to be enjoyed, not the current drudgery schools make it out to be.

    My class loved math and science.

  • Anonymous

    Lisa: Yes yes yes! Math has
    Lisa: Yes yes yes! Math has come to be seen as a punishment — I can’t believe that with all the advances in ideas about teaching over the last half-century, we still teach math as an abstract, disconnected thing. Why are science and math taught separately, for instance? Why aren’t the literatures of math and science discussed in literature courses? Is it just disciplinization, or a lack of imagination, or what?

    I’m glad there are teachers like you who are figuring this out. What I don’t understand is why better techniques don’t seem to become common knowledge within the teaching field. When an extremely bright college student asks “Why is math important?”, I have to feel that not just one but a whole string of educators have failed along the way, somewhere.

  • Anonymous

    Hi, Dustin — Thanks so much
    Hi, Dustin — Thanks so much for including Writing Power in your new site’s blogroll. Be sure to let me know when it launches, so I can follow it.

    I saw the link to my site in the “Dustin’s Shared Links” section in the sidebar, if that jogs your memory. :)


  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the kind words,
    Thanks for the kind words, Loren. I’m racking my brains trying to remember where I linked to your site, and can’t. The irony, though, is that I think you have a great site — and I *have* linked to it on the blogroll of the site that I’m launching later this month!

    In any case, I agree completely about tools for thinking — in these days, we need all the thinking tools we can get!

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