Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford, have you been reading my blog?

Almost a year ago, I wrote an entry titled “Math Mania – A Study“, in which I talk about the fact that the hysteria over advanced math skills is misplaced, as hardly anyone ever needs Trigonometry or Calculus in their daily lives.   Unless their profession calls for it.  When was the last time you were asked to prove a theorem?   And show your work?    We would be better served learning how to balance our checkbooks, figure out mortgage interest or loan interest, etc.

Cut to today, when…

In the Op-Ed section of the Times there is an article titled, “How to Fix Our Math Education”, in which the authors,  Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford, say the following:

There is widespread alarm in the United States about the state of our math education.  The anxiety can be traced to the poor performance of American students on various international tests, and it is now embodied in George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law…

All this worry, however, is based on the assumption that there is a single established body of mathematical skills that everyone needs to know to be prepared for 21st century careers.   This assumption is wrong…

Today, American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus and calculus… This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life.

For instance, how often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation?… Most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood….

Traditionalists will object that the standard curriculum teaches valuable abstract reasoning, even if the specific skills acquired are not immediately useful in later life.  A generation ago, traditionalists were also arguing that studying Latin, though it had no practical application, helped students develop unique linguistic skills.  We believe that studying applied math, like learning living languages, provides both useable knowledge and abstract skills.

It is through real-life applications that mathematics emerged in the past, has flourished for centuries and connects to our culture now.

(If you’d like to read the article in its’ entirety, the link is: )

Except for the fact that Garfunkel and Mumford (doesn’t quite have the same ring as Simon & Garfunkel, does it?)  advocate teaching these real-life applications in schools, we are in complete agreement.   Life learners have always known that the best math is the math you learn through life.   How to set a budget, multiply fractions for cooking, calculate monthly car & house payments, etc.

It’s like these guys have been reading my blog!

Or maybe it’s just that, despite what the powers that be and their propaganda have worked hard for over a century to have us believe (with great success, I might add), there are still people – mathematicians, even – who know the truth.   As my Senior English teacher James Worley said on our first day of class, “95% of what you’ve learned in school so far is garbage.”   Or at least not applicable to life as most of us will live it.

Learning real-life math skills as opposed to theory?    Watch out, Garfunkel & Mumford, they’ll be calling you radicals.

One comment on “Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford, have you been reading my blog?

  1. DDB61 says:

    I think you and I have discussed this before – theoretical math was always a challenge for me, but when I recognize an application theoretical math becomes simple, or at least understandable. There are very few teachers who utilize real life applications in their curriculum.
    Calculus is used in almost every equation explaining our 3D world in motion, and is useful in almost any situation, but it’s never explained that way. The Teaching Company has some excellent courses on calculus in the real world.

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