Why everyone should care about mathematical literacy

I really enjoyed this excellent profile in Mother Jones on Edward Frenkel and his crusade to promote mathematical literacy.

Before college, I hated math like it was my job. Probably because my K-12 exposure was limited to a life-sucking traditional pedagogy: mastering principles via boring, obnoxiously repetitious, and seemingly irrelevant rote memorization and application of equations because testing.

Yep. This was my life in High School.

Frenkel gets it, and doesn’t judge.

“As Edward Frenkel sees it, the way we teach math in schools today is about as exciting as watching paint dry. So it’s not surprising that when he brings up the fact that he’s a mathematician at dinner parties, eyes quickly glaze over. ‘Most people, unfortunately, have a very bad experience with mathematics,’ Frenkel says. And no wonder: The math we learn in school is as far from what Frenkel believes is the soul of mathematics as a painted fence is from ‘The Starry Night’ by Van Gogh, Frenkel’s favorite painter.”

My improbable conversion to the “yay math!” camp is the fortunate product of thoughtful and engaging math and science courses in college. There, I developed an enthusiasm for the subject when I was challenged to discover mathematics as a means of communication (statistics) and for explaining the inner workings of our interconnected universe (genetics, chemistry, molecular geometry). Long story short, I only cared about math once I recognized its importance in the world and its applicability to my primary areas of interest. Frenkle gets this too. So he’s undertaken a  laudable one-man mission to foster similar epiphanies in the minds of the general public.

“Rather than alienating drudgery, Frenkel views math as an ‘archipelago of knowledge’ that’s universally available to all of us, and he’s been everywhere of late spreading the word. In particular, Frenkel is intent on warning us about how people are constantly using (or misusing) math to get our personal data, to hack our emails, to game our stock markets. ‘The powers that be sort of exploit our ignorance, and manipulate us more when we are less aware of mathematics,’ said Frenkel on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. If you hated math in high school, maybe that will catch your attention.”

“An archipelago of knowledge.” How cool is that? It really is a great article, and I would especially encourage math-haters to check out his argument for the importance of math literacy not only in everyday happenings, but also in claiming and asserting agency concerning social, economic, and political decisions that affect us all.

Math for social justice. I dig it.


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