WHO’S AFRAID OF MATHEMATICS?….Despite the problems Britain is allegedly having with declining math proficiency ? or perhaps because of it ? a teacher addressing a conference in Bournemouth recently suggested dropping math as a compulsory subject. Simon Jenkins said “huzzah” to that in the London Times, and Chris Bertram had this reaction:

It is always a comfort to find a view with which I strongly disagree being promoted by Simon Jenkins in the Times, for that fact on its own strengthens my confidence that I am right. Today’s diatribe is against the teaching of mathematics in schools….

The more I think about this, though, the more uncomfortable I become. I am a considerable mathophile myself, and even intended at one point to major in math. I’ve long considered calculus to be one of the most elegant and beautiful creations of the human mind, and Isaac Newton is my hero for inventing it. (And let’s hear no talk about Leibniz on this score, OK?) Even today, I enjoy reading about mathematics, and I imagine that lunch with John Derbyshire would be quite enjoyable if we stuck to discussions of mathematical puzzles and prime numbers.

And yet, despite all this, I frequently find myself wondering if there’s a practical point to all this. After all, the fact that I love math doesn’t make it a law of nature that everyone should love ? or even learn ? math. I can’t honestly say that I actually use it much, and the vast majority of people probably never perform any math beyond addition and subtraction.

(In fact, I suspect that if you took a hundred people off the street, 95 of them would be unable to perform long division. And they wouldn’t care.)

So aside from the 10-15% of people who take up professions that require a mathematical background, is there much point in teaching math beyond about the sixth grade to the rest of them? I suspect it serves little purpose, and despite what people like me would like to think, I very much doubt that it instills any useful habits of mind either.

Frankly, if I had to make a choice, I’d prefer that high school students were more thoroughly grounded in history or geography ? or even simply more thoroughly grounded in basic math ? than in advanced mathematics. Then again, maybe I’m missing something. Any thoughts?