(Cross posted from my blog).
Talk to elementary schoolers, or even high schoolers, about math. They’ll break down pretty neatly into a group that likes math or is “good” at math, and a group that is “bad” at math, or doesn’t like math. The group that is “bad” at math won’t think there’s any problem with this- they’ve been surrounded by adults who tell them that it’s okay, that lots of people are bad at math, and that you don’t need math do well in the real world.
Sure, I’ll be the first to admit not everyone needs to learn Differential Equations to function in society. I learned them, and I never use them. The same may be true of calculus. I won’t use either discipline much as I do day to day work. At the same time, I’m not sorry I learned them. There’s something substantial to be said for 1) learning how to do something that’s very hard and 2) learning how to do something that’s very abstract. Both of these skills help you learn how to learn better, and shape your thinking in different ways. Math can teach that in some fields, there are right and wrong answers. Learning math is very valuable for learning how to learn.
What we don’t point out, is that the same is true of the type of writing we emphasize in school. Yes, we need to be able to communicate with others. Most of the writing taught in school is literary analysis, and like differential equations, no one has asked me to do it since high school. Writing is important because it teaches that society isn’t black and white- that you need to take inputs from a variety of sources and process them to figure out what you think is true. You need to be able to communicate your ideas to other people. So just as math can teach abstract thinking, writing can teach synthesis.
However, by the time you’re at late high school or even during college, most of the learning isn’t for a specific skill set, be it DiffEQ or literary analysis. So why does the educational system only value one of these types of thinking? Abstract thinking and communication/analysis skills are both important. We force engineering students to take at least 28 credits of humanities (about one course per semester) in the name of being well rounded. Despite this, we still scorn engineers for being “black and white” or not interacting with people well, despite taking courses on both ends of the spectrum. We never do the opposite- we don’t force humanities students to have this same breadth by considering analytical and societal problems. We consider being “well rounded” for a humanities student to have specialized in one field, like history, and also studied a language, psychology, or sociology. These fields have much less distance or diverse skills, yet we frequently call these students well-rounded.
Math shouldn’t be optional- it’s a valid part of a complete education, just like writing and reading are. If we’re going to say we want well-rounded students, let’s make sure we follow through on what well-rounded really means, and teach students the full breadth of the spectrum, not make excuses for them.