“What about Math?” “How will you teach your kids Algebra and Geometry?” “Do you worry that they won’t learn Math?”

As I’ve said before, I don’t worry all that much, anymore, about Math. But sometimes it seems everyone else is obsessed with it. It is the number one question I get when I talk about unschooling. Other homeschool families spend a lot of time making sure their kids are doing math, discussing it and comparing math curricula. Our schooled friends are the same, endlessly talking about math struggles and homework. What is all the fuss about math? Do we all really need to know Algebra? Geometry? Calculus? Trig? How will it affect our lives if we don’t?

To find out, I decided to do my own study on the matter. I sent out emails to 25 people I know, asking them questions about their experiences in math as children, what they do for a living, and what kind of math they use now, in their daily lives. 20 of the 25 answered me, and although it is a small sampling of people, I think it is representative. The people who so graciously took part ranged in profession from hairdresser to real estate broker to book designer to stay at home parent, office manager, salesman, graphic designer, English teacher and musician. They live in New York, Florida, Georgia, Colorado, Indiana, Connecticut, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and even England. Some were college educated, others were not. And all of them function in the world and are successful at what they do.

The first question I asked everyone was did they enjoy number games and puzzles as a child. Almost everyone did. There was only one person who unequivocally said no. The most enthusiastic answers of yes were often accompanied by a story of fun had with family members over puzzles or games involving numbers. One person said they didn’t like the hard games, because they didn’t like disappointing their parents when they got an answer wrong.

It was telling that many people who really enjoyed math had an accompanying story about a parent who explained or encouraged or supplemented the information being given in school. Most of my subjects said math was ok until they got to Algebra or higher. Then the opinions varied, but the majority didn’t enjoy their experiences in those classes. One of my subjects did love Geometry and he is now an Origami book designer and writer.

But no matter what the school experience or the level of math taken in school or the current profession (with the exception of my Origami guy who uses Geometry every day for obvious reasons), most people only use basic math in their every day lives. Basic math, as I am defining it, includes adding, subtracting, multiplication, division, decimals to the hundredths and some fractions. Of this basic math, the majority involves money; balancing checkbooks, working out budgets, price comparisons, counting change, etc. Even working with spreadsheets requires only basic math knowledge. The hardest part there is knowing how to tell the computer what to do with the rows and columns – the computer does the rest.

So why all the mania about math? I had someone tell me that the important thing about Geometry and Algebra and higher maths is not the math itself, but that it teaches you a different way of thinking; more critical and analytical. Well, maybe, but I would argue that this only occurs if you are enjoying the subject and learning it due to your own motivation and desire. And I would strongly argue that math is not the only path to critical thinking. (It certainly wasn’t for me.) Literary criticism and any kind of debate also fosters critical thinking. I would agree that in schools, ‘higher’ math may be the only subject where critical or analytical thinking happens, but that is the fault of textbooks and methods of teaching that are only about listening and regurgitating and do not encourage discourse and debate.

Others have said that in order to understand the universe, you must understand math. Everything can be explained with numbers. Math is everywhere in nature. True, but so are atoms, oxygen and carbon dioxide, and yet this frenzy that exists around math is not found when talking about science, though they are closely related disciplines. Why don’t we think all children need to learn organic chemistry?

I don’t have the answers as to where this mania originated (probably in some ‘expert’ study on what kids need to know, written by math teachers looking for job security.), but I do have a strong conviction that our obsessing and worry on this subject is overblown. If our child wants to be an architect or engineer or astronaut, then they will be motivated to learn the math necessary to achieve those goals. If they simply love numbers and everything associated with them, then they will gravitate toward all things math related. If, however, they love writing fiction, or want to be a chef or a dog trainer or a linguist or even a photographer, then basic math will probably do. None of my study participants seemed hampered in their lives by a lack of math knowledge. No one said, “If only I’d taken Calculus, my life would be a success.” Several did say they’d be lost without a calculator, but this did not appear to be a source of great angst for them.

The next time someone asks me “What about Algebra?”, I think I will ask them to tell me about algebra, and how they use it in their life as an adult. (or Geometry, or math in general).

After I hear their answer, then we can talk.