Puzzled by math curriculum

Sorry to say I can no longer help my sons with their math homework. They are sophomores at Southwest High school and the math they’re doing is way beyond me. This simple fact has me puzzled.

Why are they being asked to learn math that in six decades of life I’ve never needed?

In fact, outside of science and engineering or university mathematics teaching, I can’t imagine where these sorts of calculations are useful.

This prompts me to wonder: just what is the agenda of mathematics education in this fashion and at this level? This curriculum, as directed by the Legislature and implemented by Minneapolis Public Schools, certainly has nothing to do utility. I wonder if it has to do, in part, with submission: you (student) will do these problems in this way because the powers that be so decree. The lesson is not about mathematics, it’s about power.

But I think there’s more. When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin I read in my program that the commencement speaker was a statistician. I sighed and

resigned myself to a stretch of boredom. What a surprise to find the speaker fascinating, engaging and thought-provoking. Through examples sometimes comic, sometimes frightening, he challenged the graduates to be very skeptical of mathematical data by showing many clever ways it can be presented so as to distort its real meaning.

That day, I gained a window into mathematical understanding that is still useful to me many years later. But that kind of critical understanding appears to be the polar opposite of the forced march to conformity that I see in my sons’ homework.

No wonder so many people were hoodwinked into impossible mortgages during the housing boom: they never learned the math skills to understand the papers they signed.

How many voters today comprehend the numbers involved in the Vikings stadium — or the impact of an $8-an-hour minimum wage? More practically, how many high school students have the mathematical and analytic skills to understand the risks and benefits of college debt — a calculation of immediate significance and long-term consequence?

These days the mainstream media for the most part “reports” whatever politicians say without challenge: “so-and-so said this will cost/save x-million dollars over five years.”

How can we as citizens evaluate such a statement? While my son’s math teacher makes an eloquent case for the beauty of pure mathematics, my sons and their peers are not gaining mathematical tools for citizenship. They are not learning to comprehend or critique the numbers that fly at us all from politicians and hucksters.

There is, I believe, a citizenship deficit today. Far too often in our political discourse argument overwhelms or ignores data. The tools for living democracy include a critical understanding of the significance of numbers. As a humanist, I appreciate a love of mathematics, but as a citizen, I want understanding. 

Bob Walser