The Sufferings of Math

Warning: Unless you are particularly interested in math, education reform, or something of that nature, you might not enjoy this particular reading. It is a little long and I don’t expect many people to read through it. However, I thought it necessary to post since so many friends thought it an interesting topic. To make the reading more fun, I’ve posted some Simpsons pictures along the way (apparently they reference math all the time). As usual, I’d love some feedback. 

The Sufferings of Math

           It would be too easy to suggest that if most college students could live without math, they would. Though not a favorite course to many, the benefits for learning basic principles, building upon those principles, and challenging the brain to give solutions can be easily seen. While it is healthy to challenge the brain, these “exercises” are often assigned far past their initial usefulness and far into exhaustion. The problem isn’t the math itself but the obsession with it, not the usefulness, but the focus. Will students actually use the math they are studying, or will they easily forget it as soon as they stop applying it? If so, is it all for nothing? Since the breach of our modern college system, these reoccurring questions have been inflicting suffering to almost as many students as there are degrees. To find a true usefulness of math, I suggest that we stop solving for x, and start asking why. When we do, the society of math will have answer to the cold fact that there really is no long-term benefit for the students invested in these higher-level classes. That really, most post college jobs only require basic math principles. Instead of having students endure through the current math system, the concentration of college math should be better tailored to the end result of the student’s degree, the job field.

Can small business owners really gain much long-term benefit to the lengthened study of math? Before jumping into college, I spent three years managing a retail business. In that time I learned more about business management and marketing than I ever expected to learn. When I first received the promotion into management, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to perform the math my boss would ask me to do, since the college level seemed so far above my capabilities. I was surprised to learn that the majority of arithmetic I used was simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. When speaking of math in the job field, prizewinning math educator James J. Asher, PhD (2007) claims, “The truth is almost everyone will never use algebra after leaving school. And, the few times anyone thinks they are using algebra, they are really using simple arithmetic” (p. 3). After enrolling in Math 025, North Idaho College’s basic or “Elementary Algebra,” I admit that I did find a benefit from studying the basic principles. However, the amount of elementary algebra that transfers into my post college life is what is in question. Asher, PhD., continues, “There is no evidence that algebra or geometry or calculus, for that matter, transfers to anything else. Practice with algebra makes one more proficient in algebra. Period,” (2007, p. 2). So if algebra only makes a college student better at algebra, and their presented job field doesn’t use algebra, why are they being forced to take it? It is interesting enough that Math 025 doesn’t earn the student any credit towards the degree; it is merely a stepping-stone into the harder material. Surprisingly, an Idaho business student will need to take at least three different math classes in order to gain an Associates Degree. According to (2010), after applying to their Entrepreneurship Program, there would be an additional two math classes needed for completion of a Bachelors Degree. After deciding to go back to school to study business in hope of someday having my own; I’ve found that many business students are studying math that they will never use.

Can anyone truly say that math prepares us to solve for all of life’s scenarios? When speaking of translating algebraic equations into real life scenarios, James J. Asher, PhD explains, “Students endure agony…(because) the creators of the problem had to know the answer in the first place” (2007, p.2). Besides Jeopardy, how often are questions asked as answers anyways? It is apparent that the real life application for a lot of the college level math seems to be lacking. Why study topics and equations just for the sake of studying them? Is this really beneficial to the general population of America to practice formulas and structures that are hardly ever put to use? Not only does our education system force students to learn this often inappropriate math, but it also prepares students for principles they will never even use in the classroom.

For the college students required to take Calculus and beyond, most of the math learned is at least useful in getting to the next step. But what about those students who don’t have to take classes like Calculus, but still must prepare for them? Math education is all about learning the basic principles found in the early courses, and building upon those until we exhaust them with all our knowledge and abilities. If every course just builds and builds, is it fair to drag others through the preparation process regardless? I asked Robby Delorto, a recent math major graduate from the University of Idaho, about his thoughts on the matter. He proposed that, “Math is incredibly useful, but not everyone needs a Calculus level, and most need a lot less.” Delorto continues, “A lot of the topics covered in Math 143 leads and prepares for Calculus. When I tutor students who don’t pursue pass 143, they ask me why they must learn these principles; I sadly have no real answer for them” (personal communication, 2011). So is math unnecessary? Of course not. But the society of math needs to be careful about exhausting the usefulness into overkill. To solve this equation, there has to be a way to bridge necessity and compromise.

So if students may be studying too much, how do we get to the point where we know what they need? To find the answer, there must be a dependable process of auditing the education system. Dating back to an education reformer named William Heard Kilpatrick (1920), he suggested such that, “No longer should the force of tradition shield any subject from scrutiny…In probably no study did this older doctrine of mental discipline find larger scope than in mathematics, in arithmetic to an appreciable extent, more in algebra” (p.14). Kilpatrick was simply suggesting that every class topic should be subject to review and that the educational community needs to take their findings seriously, even if it means throwing away tradition. How will education ever find middle ground if they’re too afraid to take a look at what they’re currently standing on?

Any good math teacher will say that there is no purpose of asking questions without solutions. I propose that each degree have it’s own specific math course, with principles tailored to the job field. If students learn what they need to learn, the only conceivable outcomes will be engaged classes, higher grades, and a more efficient and apt work force. So how do we start? I suggest that community colleges and universities, with the help of the government, start surveying jobs. What math is being used? Are there a majority of retail small business owners using Calculus? Are those in law enforcement using Contemporary Mathematics? Are musicians using Finite Math? One of two things would happen: it would reinforce our current math system, or expose it for the overkill that it really is. It may seem overwhelming to think about changing a system that has been in play for centuries, but a mass revision must happen.

With so many notable and capable math and education reformer’s ideas documented throughout the years, it is sad to witness the lack of action on behalf of the educational system.  “It is hard to decide which is more striking,” observes Suzanne Wilson (2003), acclaimed teacher and proponent for math reform, “the consistent, insistent calls for reform decade upon decade or the failure of any reform to actually stick” (p. 17). Though Wilson’s reform and my reform may look different, we both recognize there is a presence that stands in the way.  This presence comes from those who are comfortable the way things are. They are people who are, unfortunately, ignoring the needs of the cause of the entire education system: the students. Their basic conviction is that higher-level math builds problem solving and critical thinking skills necessary for all general jobs. Though it should be a healthy part of this process, math is not the only way our brains can learn how to problem solve. Every course taken, whether Speech, English, or Science, can teach students problem solving and critical thinking. Failing to realize this may in fact be non-critical thinking.

Though many, if not all students are desperate for change, the general concern is for the teachers. If a new restrained and better-tailored system of math is presented, will teachers loose their jobs? First and foremost, it will lead to more jobs for teachers! With so many new courses, there will be more slots to fill, opening up a job market that has been slim for some time. Students will indeed benefit from the reform, as they should. The simple willingness to learn something that is more appropriate for their degree will inspire a new generation of students who are excited about their education. No longer having to prepare for principles they will never take, they will instead focus on the more core topics of their degree. Students and teachers will also benefit from smaller and more focused classrooms that work at slower paces than our current math department allows. If the goal is to learn, then more time must be allowed for teachers to ensure that their students are learning and retaining the information that is being presented.

If there is going to be change, then there must be a benefit for all parties involved, including the beloved textbook industry. According to, between 2010-2011 the average student spent 1,137 at four-year universities. Since math is the same today as it was yesterday, there aren’t very many opportunities to issue new textbooks. With this new degree based math program there would be a massive need for new books and editions to be constructed and printed.

Also benefiting from the influx of courses would be the colleges themselves. Prospective students would be less intimidated to pursue higher education and enrollment rates would skyrocket. The benefits would run full circle into all aspects of our education system: teachers, students, textbooks, and colleges. The overflow of this new knowledge would pour over and onto a smarter general population; a population that was taught a restrained math system that allowed for focusing, repetition, and memorization.

Though math is a beautiful language, not everyone was born to speak it. There are those who speak it well and excel greatly, while the rest of us are left in the dust. Unfortunately, we all must learn this foreign language past its basic principles whether or not we plan to ultimately speak it and live in it’s country. As someone who loves English courses, I can see the need to educate all students on the process of sentence formulation, grammar, and analysis. But to force every student to write and publish a novel would seem absurd. Yet this is what we do with math. To open a conversation with change, we must start taking responsibility for our education. It’s time to make our voices heard by speaking with our teachers and respectably communicating to our school boards. Let us stop robbing ourselves of a better education and fight the good fight of banishing outdated tradition. Let us focus on what we need, instead of filling our brains only to empty them and forget. Let us find a balance and critically think about a solution that brings us all on the same side. Maybe then and only then, we can truly solve for x.


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