The earth must be wobbling on its axis or something. An East Coast earthquake followed by a hurricane this weekend, and in between, clarity on the op-ed page of the New York Times in an article, of all things, on math education, an excerpt:
Today, American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus and calculus (or a “reform” version in which these topics are interwoven). This has been codified by the Common Core State Standards, recently adopted by more than 40 states. This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life.
For instance, how often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? Do they need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations” or a “complex number”? Of course professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers need to know all this, but most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.
Unbelievable (that the New York Times would publish such heresy) but profoundly true. Mathematics is really nothing more or less than a language; it is the language used to quantify relationships, natural and manmade, in the universe. Being educated in mathematics means understanding the basics of the language, its symbology being an important component, and how it is used to quantify relationships.
Mathematics is not necessarily the same as logic, which is a manner of disciplined thinking whose primrose path has led more than a few men to madness or suicide. Mathematics is simply a method of explication. Like any other method of explication, logic, though important, will be sacrificed on the altar of useful explication when necessary. Otherwise, explain imaginary numbers. Or infinity via set theory. Indeed, your head will explode.
Mathematics is a powerful explicatory device because the quantification of relationships is a very powerful mechanism for understanding cause and effect. And gaining some idea about how to see cause and effect relationships as they are is one of the main points, or should be, of an education.
But this idea of the Times presents a quandary. If students are taught real-world mathematics such that they actually understand things like a mortgage amortization, the time value of money, the statistical significance or insignificance of a survey or study, etc., how difficult would it then be to lie to them? Considering that the purpose of education seems to be creating docile, ignorant adult sheep, the Times’ recommendation seems borderline treasonous.
What if by teaching school children the power of mathematics in explaining reality they were able to grasp that putting some highly stylized ink on a piece of paper does not create value? What if they gain a workable understanding of math such that they realize that value is only created by human effort, either the sweat of a human’s brow or the human manipulation of a machine? How dire then will be the economic fortunes of the republic, as people reject the idea that something has value solely because the government commands it to?
I can see only dire consequences flowing from this heretical idea that the purpose of education might be learning something actually useful about the world as it is. Better that the education system stick to dogma, else the foundation of lies upon which society depends might come tumbling down.