Do We Really Need More Math?

My first reaction on hearing President Obama’s proposal to give every American a free community college education was, why do we need another level of free education? Why don’t we take what they’d be teaching at the community college level and put it into the high school? They could make room by getting rid of all the unnecessary things that are being taught there now.

The curriculum at the high school and college level desperately needs an overhaul, but there are too many vested interests maintaining the status quo. At the high school level we keep hearing the mourners in the corner keening about our country’s lamentable scores in math compared to other nations. The result? The push for more and more useless math classes for everyone. If ever there were a sure-fire way to increase the number of people who feel stupid it would be to stick them into a pre-calculus class.

Let’s face it, some people are good at math and some people aren’t.   Some really struggle with numbers, and lose self-esteem when confronted with others who always seem to know the answers. Of course there are also many who will be able to get better at it, and succeed and be able to factor a polynomial with the best of them, but why should they learn this to begin with? You’ll hear a lot of cant about the need for better engineers or technicians, but why subject the entire student population in the United States to these esoteric, never-again-to-be-used skills, in order for a small percentage of them to go on to become engineers or accountants or whoever does in fact use them. By all means, let’s target the good math students and give them a world-class education with all the math they can handle, but let’s teach the masses how percentages and fractions work and leave it at that.

But no, not just that….let’s add to the curriculum some essentials to life in the 21st century, like how a mortgage works, how credit card debt can destroy your life, strategies for saving money.   High school is the time for all this–a dip into a practical education, not a dunk into the abstruse.  But how many schools teach this now?  Not many if any.

I know, I know… there is also the argument that math builds up a part of your brain that needs the exercise, that we all need to give that part a workout. But to me this is like saying we all have a musical part of our brain, and need to give that a workout too. But are we going to make the entire population learn an instrument and sing in a chorus for that reason? Yes, we do and should make young children sing, but by the time we’re in high school, people are capable of knowing if they want to continue their musical education or not, and the same goes for higher math.

Lest the reader think that I’m an embittered sociopath, scarred by my failures in algebra, geometry and trig, let the record show that I love math, and did well all the way through calculus classes in college. I occasionally tutor it now in high school and always enjoy it. But I’ve watched two of my children suffer at the hands of a state who tyrannically and mercilessly insisted that they confront and conquer sines and cosines, logarithms and parabolas, though they could hardly see the numbers through the tears that filled their eyes.

Enough of a rant on this. A change will never happen because my friends in the math-teachers union will never allow it.   More later on Obama’s plan for community colleges.  But if we did make more room in the curriculum at the high-school level, perhaps some of the suggestions in my book on teaching the Universal Sacraments could be implemented.

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