This is a question that comes up every now in then. But I would like to ask a few similar questions with my first order approximation answers. I would love to hear some other ideas on these questions.
Do people need a functional understanding of math to function in this world?
I say no. Maybe this is not a popular answer, but this is my first answer. Let me give my reasons. What percent of people in this world have a functional understanding of math? (let me just say functional understanding means they can do basic word problems and understand what is going on) If I estimate this percent of people at 50%, you might argue that this is too high, but that is my estimate. What percent of people are able to get along in this world? Is 98% a good guess? Most people seem to be mostly fine. So, from this I would say you don’t need to be able to do word problems to get along just fine.
Now compare this to the ability to read and write. I think that in this society you really need to know how to read and write to get along (but you don’t need to know how to tie your shoes – you know, because of all those velcro-shoes).
Would the world be a better place if everyone understood math?
I think so. Dan Meyer posted a link on twitter to this article on the Chronicle of Higher Education – “Make math a gateway, not a gatekeeper”. The main point is that math is currently a big barrier to students in college. Dan, in particular, likes this quote:
“Statistical reasoning supports decision making under conditions of uncertainty, an inescapable condition of modern life. This is math that will help these students understand the world around them, and it’s the math they can use right now.”
I agree that if everyone understood statistics, politics would make more sense and people would make better decisions (like not playing the lottery).
Should you study math?
Absolutely yes. Not only is it important in many fields, it is helps you with critical thinking skills. Even if those were not true, I would say everyone should study math because that is what makes us human (along with literature, art, music, science, and beer).
Just a note, if you changed the above questions to be about art instead of math, my answers would be essentially the same.
I would love to hear what you think about math. Primarily, do you need to understand math to have a normal life (functional understanding)?