# Why are we math illiterate and proud of it?

” “The math instructor was a little hot: “Why are people so proud that they don’t know math?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, always a little hesitant talking with math instructors about math instruction. I need to teach math to GED and Program Prep students, but am very aware that it is not my strong suit.

So, while I do understand the math-phobic, I also thought that the math instructor had a good point. She pointed out by contrast if people cannot read (another basic skill I teach), they don’t brag about it to family and friends. Most of the time, they hide their illiteracy, embarrassed. But math illiteracy doesn’t have the same societal shame. If people cannot tell a linear equation from a quart of machine oil, they brag about it to friends and family, “Look at me everyone: I’m a math idiot, and, I don’t care.” That braggadocio not only underplays the importance of math in society (try to think of an activity that doesn’t use math), but, more worrisome, also sends a destructive excuse to children: “Don’t worry about your math classes. It doesn’t matter. My daddy told me so.”

Yet it does matter. A great deal. When a student walks into the Basic Ed Open Lab, what subject do we have to remediate more often than any other? Not surprisingly, it is math. Without the basics in whole numbers (ie., multiplication tables), other work in decimals, fractions, ratios and percentages are beyond student’s ability, much less work in intermediate algebra, geometry, trigonometry, measurement formulas, data statistics, accounting, and calculus. And, without a base in high school-level math, technical college course work in business, medicine, trades, and even police science is unrealistic. The much publicized and sought after STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum begins, and ends, with math.

Yet, the math instructor said that she often hears parents wallow in their ignorance. They tell her with a laugh that they are so math-illiterate that they can’t help their middle school student with math problems. “This is unacceptable,” the math instructor said, shaking her head. How can you be a functioning person and find yourself stymied by “2x + 2 = 8″?

I have to agree with her. This pride in math illiteracy doesn’t add up.”

http://westbynorthwest-dougl.blogspot.co.nz/2013/03/why-are-we-math-illiterate-and-proud-of.html

I always wondered this. Is it means to feel connected, a part of society, by laughing that you can’t do maths? Societyyyyy whatchu doinggggg

Tagged: illiteracy, illiterate, maths, pride, social conditioning

Want to reply?

Sign In or Create an Account

@francina, I just read a quite intersting book on this.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innumeracy_(book)

I love math, some of it gets complex, and yes, it is ok to be illiterate at those parts (like Calculus, or advanced trig), but algebra and basic trig are way more useful then people think.

Everyone should be able to add, subtract, multiply, divide, fractions, decimals, percentages, algebra, and sine!

Basic math, sure. I mean very basic, the stuff most people do everyday without realizing it. And just to preface this statement, I happen to enjoy some math, when learned on my own not in a forced environment. But most things, basic algebra and beyond, seem utterly useless to me in real life. Maybe, as said before, I employ these things on a daily basis and don’t even realize it. But I’ve recently gone back to school and had to retake math classes and am just blown away by what I perceive to be the uselessness of most math to me, speaking only for myself of course. I understand if you’re going to be an accountant, or an engineer, or a math teacher, but why should I be forced to learn about complex and non-real numbers (a good portion of the semester was spent on this)? When will I ever need to know how to solve non-linear inequalities? Those aren’t rhetorical, I would be very interested to learn the everyday uses for the things I’ve been forced to learn.

Most higher level math seems to be extremely abstract, which isn’t to say it’s not useful but that often it doesn’t have a great deal of application in a practical sense. I could also offer a few arguments for why mathematics alone doesn’t give a solid explanation of the universe but it still contributes to our understanding in a pertinent way.

“Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” -Leibniz

The above quote is only one interpretation of music but perhaps modern society’s illiteracy could be tied to the mainstream, popular taste in music in terms of the simplicity and monotonous beats employed, maybe the same could be said of other facets of life.

So even though I am absolutely horrendous at math I still admire it and those who are capable of utilizing it.

I LOVE math. When I finally took the last math course required for my major, I panicked and found room in my schedule to add mathematics as another major, just so I would have to challenge myself further with complex, difficult courses on mathematical theory.

When I tell people that I am a math major, they look at me like I am crazy. Then, they will usually tell me a story about how they are SO happy to be done with math forever and how bad they are at it.

Now, I wouldn’t say that I am necessarily good at math. I study a lot, and with all that time and practice, I have developed different ways of thinking, and my problem solving/logic skills are better than most of my peers’. The deeper into my math major I get, the more I learn about numbers and the development of this special way of approaching the world. Sitting with one of my professors the other day, he was explaining to me the reasoning behind this one proof that wasn’t clear to me. When he finished explaining, and when I finally understood, he sat back and sighed, saying “What a beautiful proof”, really appreciating the logic behind it.

Personally, I feel that math has taught me how to take a deep breath, and tackle a seemingly difficult problem (on paper, and in real life) step by step, without becoming stressed and overwhelmed. The skills that math teaches you are not simply how to manipulate numbers to get what you want, but also how to apply mathematical reasoning and logic to everyday situations.

Has anyone noticed the importance of having a good math teacher? It’s one of those things that can guide a person’s life. I know that because I’ve been in 5 different schools with a bigger number of math teachers and their personalities were strong but completely different compared to other teachers – they had more similarities.

@francina, First of all I think it may be because math is quite a hard subject to understand for some people because it requires a certain type of mind or to condition yourself into a certain type of thinker to excel at it. Pretty much everybody can do basic math that they need for their day to day lives but just like how most people aren’t too bummed about not being able to paint like Picasso people don’t really care if they can do vectors in their heads. Also very complicated math (complicated by societies standards) is one of those thins where if you aren’t constantly applying it you’ll forget it soon enough.

tl;dr people don’t really see the point of it unless it is something that they will need in the future.

@francina, this “math-illiteracy” is mostly a phenomenon in north america though. I have quite a few foreign friends Europe, Asia and India They tell me when they came to Canada that the stuff they were learning in highschool they already covered in grade 6.

It’s not that people take pride in their math illiteracy alone; it’s that they take pride in their ignorance altogether. “We used to aspire to intelligence, not belittle it.”

We aren’t being raised to understand how important this knowledge is. In America, we have all this shit at our finger tips through not only computers, but smart phones and tablets and even e-readers. We take it for granted, truly. And how could we not when almost answer to every question we might have is just a few clicks away?

“She pointed out by contrast if people cannot read (another basic skill I teach), they don’t brag about it to family and friends. Most of the time, they hide their illiteracy, embarrassed.”

I don’t agree with this analogy because reading is an extremely basic literacy skill, for example. I’d compare not being able to read to someone who can’t add and subtract basic numbers such as 2 + 2 or 43 – 10. Relating it back to English, though, people will “brag” about being unable to tell the difference between a preposition and direct object in the same way they do between “a linear equation [and] a quart of machine oil.”

Language as knowledge is so under appreciated, in my opinion, lol. Especially by math teachers.

Overall, my point is just that it’s not just math people take “pride” in being unable to do. It’s all subjects and it’s all forms of knowledge. Honestly, my mother made fun of reading because she’s not the type of person to “care about the lives of fictional characters.” I don’t understand it.

@smalls, The use of complex numbers such as imaginary numbers really will never be useful unless you are trying to describe complex physical interactions between systems of both the linear and non-linear type. However, when it comes to every day use, most common people do not need to know that the fourth root of -1 is or how to plot a polar co-ordinate. But I also think that the introduction in the class is necessary for everyone to get to see because you never know if you are in a class with a future engineer or physicist. Coming from an engineer, growing up I heard plenty of people complain about how they will never use this stupid subject in their every day life and like @francina, pointed out there seems to be a sort of negative feedback loop between children and their parents when it comes to math. Children see their parents struggled with it and seemed to not need it so they don’t see its usefulness or application to their futures and refuse to learn it. This is then reinforced by the refusal of our society to create a taboo against math illiteracy and continues the vicious cycle of under education of our adult population.

Math is a language just as english or chinese or spanish, and the most powerful thing about it is its universality and tendency to create things beyond our wildest imaginations. Math has been used to understand everything that we take for-granted in our world today, from the laptop and smart phone that you are viewing this comment on, to the power that feeds them, or the structures that house us, the machines that move us from point A to point B, the medicine that heals you, the financial system that we all know and “love”, and most importantly of all the quality of life that we experience today. It completely astounds me at time the ridiculousness of the claim that we don’t need to know math. Now not everyone is going to need to understand what chaos theory or group theory is or how one linearizes a non-linear system of differential equations, those are used as design tools for engineers and scientists to create new technologies. But I do think that at minimum to be a competent individual one must be proficient in at least geometry as its uses are extremely relevant in EVERYONE’S life. For instance lets say you are older and are rebuilding your kitchen and would like to put in a cabinet, but don’t know if it will fit with the amount of wall space that you have. Basic principles from geometry and algebra can help you figure out whether or not it is possible to put in this cabinet and can then help you understand if you can afford the cabinet or not and if not how much you should put away per month to be able to afford it at some point. These are the common issues that get overlooked as important reasons for knowing math.

So in answer to your questions about when will you ever need to know how to solve non-linear inequalities, or understand complex numbers:

If you don’t see their impact on your everyday life then you’ll never understand the need for them.

@iamdrugs, I’m also awful at math man but usually endeavours in life are far more rewarding when you have to work for them instead of getting an immediate result. The satisfaction is also in the journey not just the results from it.

Like @bewylde, said, “Math is a language just as english or chinese or spanish, and the most powerful thing about it is its universality and tendency to create things beyond our wildest imaginations. Math has been used to understand everything that we take for-granted in our world today, from the laptop and smart phone that you are viewing this comment on, to the power that feeds them, or the structures that house us, the machines that move us from point A to point B, the medicine that heals you, the financial system that we all know and “love”, and most importantly of all the quality of life that we experience today.” When people tell me math will never be relevant to their lives i find it positively ridiculous that they can tell themselves that and actually sincerely believe it. Don’t they realise how many crucial parts its played in their society’s, both directly and indirectly?

@kidd, thank you! that was exactly what i wanted to discuss actually hahaha maths was just the example. Why are people proud of knowing that they don’t know something and do nothing to remify that fact.

@beyond, teachers make all the difference! It’s such bull when people are like blahblah the teacher doesn’t affect your subject whereas i know for a fact that i picked up/dropped classes because i couldn’t learn the way that the teacher taught or interacted with students.

@yourefunny, i totally know what you mean. i LOVE maths too. I crave the logic and sense that it has to make, and there absolutely is something beautiful when it all makes sense and you’re just like wow. this is amazing. i don’t know if it says something subconsciously, but i really value how set and absolute it is.

@conpassione, @runnerbeneaththesky, I’m actually great at math. I realize that math is a necessity as it applies to science and technology. I was just explaining my opinion on why people dislike math.

People just dismiss things they feel incapable of. I don’t think anyone is actually proud of being illiterate in the science that adds the most tangible and respected developments in our evolution. And since math is so highly valued, I developed an inferiority complex about the whole thing and I think others do too.

Unfortunately there are so many terrible math teachers. It’s always presented in such an arbitrary way without any explanation of how it applies to our experience.It seems like they are presenting concepts that I am missing loads of prerequisite knowledge of and the system just doesn’t make up for that. Most people that only have partial understanding of the foundations have to just memorize things. I love math when I finally get the concepts, but my pace is too slow to succeed in a regularly paced class higher than intermediate algebra.

If I could spend a year or two in remedial math courses, I would. Maybe I will.

Want to reply?

Sign In or Create an Account