Should math be mandatory?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Math class
These students look so excited.

How do you feel about math? I know there are some people who love it and are really good at it, while others loathe anything that has to do with a multiplication sign. Well, no matter how you feel, it’s a requirement for graduating high school. Why, though?

According to Nicholson Baker – an award-winning author who has written several books related to politics, history, and literature – we need to take math in school because of the tension between America and the Soviet Union (now Russia) after World War II. Come again? Well, hear me out. The two nations were competing for technological superiority in the 20th century, whether that meant getting into space first or having the best weapons. America realized that Soviet Union schools were teaching many of their students math, which meant their scientists were building more advanced technology! By comparison, the US only had 25% of students in math classes. Not to be outdone, the US Congress passed a law in 1958 to reinforce math and science education across America.

Well, now we know why math is mandatory, but should it be? According to Baker, no. He quotes number theorist Underwood Dudley, who once said, “The vast majority of the human race, and the vast majority of the college-educated human race never need any mathematics beyond arithmetic to survive successfully.”

Whoa! This Dudley guy is pretty hardcore, and Baker’s obviously a fan. Should we make math into an optional class, then? If math was an elective, Baker believes that “American science and technology would be unharmed, and a lot of poisonous math hatred would go away instantly. Kids don’t hate smelting, or farming, or knitting, or highway design, or portrait painting, or neurology, or juggling rubber balls, or sonnet-writing, because they don’t have to take three years of instruction in any of these arts.”

In other words, Baker believes that math should only be taught to kids who really want to learn it. Forcing kids to learn a subject they aren’t too good at means they are going to end up hating it, and it will shed a dark light on an otherwise brilliant subject! Does this mean you should go up to your math teacher and demand some recess time during class? Should you wield the name Underwood Dudley, while twirling an invisible mustache? Absolutely not. In fact, as much as Baker dislikes the thought of making kids learn advanced math, he still believes learning arithmetic is a basic life skill everyone should have. As for Algebra II, Trigonometry, Geometry, Calculus, and all that super-genius stuff? He figures if you’re into that kind of thing, knock yourself out, and build us a fancy new rocket.

Featured image courtesy of Irish Typepad on Flickr.