Adding Up Fuzzy Math: Teaching the Basics

The New York Post
April 18, 2001

Op-Ed by Roland Minton

ROSIE O'Donnell has been quoted in Newsweek as saying that math should no longer be taught because "we have computers (and) no longer need to know why 3x = (2y) /4." I think that Rosie is, in her words, a "cutie patootie," but in this case she is quite wrong.

Because talk-show hosts are in the business of generating conversation, I'll treat Rosie's comments as a friendly challenge to the mathematics community, something like asking Nicole Kidman why she thought she was good enough to be married to Tommy in the first place.

Let me first confess that not all mathematics is useful in everyday life. As an adult, I have never had the need to recite the poems I memorized in eighth grade. Similarly, most people will never have the occasion to use the quadratic formula. In fact, as a mathematics textbook author for McGraw-Hill, I have sometimes struggled unsuccessfully to find realistic examples to motivate the study of certain types of algebra.

There are countless examples of mathematics being useful and enlightening. Tennis players and fans can benefit from calculations showing that the margin of error in striking angle for a Pete Sampras speed serve is one degree if hit with no spin, but is three or four times greater if hit with topspin. Analysts of the presidential election would have spoken more knowledgeably about the validity of different recount procedures if they understood basic statistics.

Car buyers and home buyers who mastered algebra can confidently refuse to be pressured into accepting bad terms on a loan.

Any list of applications, however, will completely miss the primary benefit of mathematics. A recent graduate of Roanoke College with a degree in mathematics has become the director of personnel at a local company. He knows how to break down a large problem into smaller, more manageable pieces. He has no difficulty organizing myriad overlapping job descriptions into a logical whole. He is able to devise imaginative personnel strategies using his mathematical skills of analyzing data, recognizing patterns and abstracting important principles. Such critical thinking skills are keys to a life that is rewarding in both the financial and psychological sense.

Mathematics courses that are done well are perhaps the purest mental conditioning programs that humans have devised. Our society loses if mathematics and other disciplines are eliminated or "dumbed down" just because students find the material difficult and not personally relevant. We must prepare the next generation to be logical, flexible thinkers in a world that is increasingly complex and mathematical.

Recent research indicates that the concepts of numbers and arithmetic are present in newborns. Anyone who has watched young children at play knows that counting and organizing and trading are natural and enjoyable aspects of playing. That is, humans naturally enjoy mathematics.

It is easy to lose that enjoyment if you start to find the learning difficult and get no help from teachers and parents. In fact, it sounds cooler to just quit, especially when a popular talk-show host proclaims that we should drop mathematics from school.

So, please, Rosie, say something nice about mathematics.

You may get a laugh when you put down mathematics, but it's a cheap laugh based on ignorance and prejudice. Please use your considerable charm and influence to help kids see that success in mathematics can give them a great sense of accomplishment while preparing them to enjoy the fast-paced, highly technical world in which they will live.

Roland Minton is professor of mathematics at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

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