Math, Not For Profit

I recently read Martha Nussbaum’s book Not For Profit, Why Democracy Needs The Humanities.  I really like the underlying principle of the book, and it is something that government policy makers and universities should consider, as well as public and private school stakeholders.

The basic premise of the book is that schools are focusing too much on an education system that is believed to lead to stronger economic growth and GNP.  Nussbaum argues that this isn’t necessarily the case: while STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is important to vibrant growth, so are creative and critical thinking (liberal arts, including philosophy).  Nussbaum writes, “thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, we are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive.  If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.”


Two cornerstones in Nussbaum’s view for education include the embodiment of Rabindranath Tagor’s ideas on education and the rich learning that comes through in Socratic dialogues.  As Nussbaum points out, “the Socratic ideal, however, is under severe strain in a world bent on maximizing economic growth.  The ability to think and argue for oneself looks to many people like something dispensable if what we want are marketable outputs of quantifiable nature… To the extent that standardized tests become the norm by which schools are measured, then, Socratic aspects of both curriculum and pedagogy are likely left behind.”  Specifically, Nussbaum believes that critical thinking, and philosophy in particular, should be infused into all university programs.


I completely agree with Nussbaum’s assessment and would like to take the argument even further.  I believe that critical thinking should become a part of secondary school education.  It already is, in some ways, but there are attempts to change this: math is not only an important part of STEM, but is also an important part of critical thinking.  However, there is a growing consensus that math in public schools should be made more “real life,” and that somehow teachers should make math seem more useful to the students.  From this, it is suggested that teachers should use more pseudo-problem based learning.  While I don’t think this necessarily hurts, I also don’t see much benefit.  Pseudo real-life is not really any more real than more abstract approaches to math.  For example, rather than having students solve equivalent ratio questions we can dress it up in a problem about how many songs a person can fit in an mp3 player.  I would argue that outside of school, a person is as likely to do an equivalent ratio question as they are to calculate songs on an mp3 player.  In other words, I think that we are doing a disservice by attempting to cater to the “when are we going to use this?” sentiment.  Mathematics contains an aesthetic just as the arts do, as pointed out in Lockhart’s Lament.  While math clearly plays an important role on the STEM side of the equation, math also plays a crucial role in logical and critical thinking, and we should be enthusiastic in teaching math for these reasons.  Like the humanities, mathematics that is removed from “real life” is also important for democracy.


One aspect of critical thinking and math that I haven’t had a chance to discuss with anyone (hint: you can leave a comment on this post) is the possibility of offering a replacement for upper level math in secondary school.  As a teacher and a member of my community and society, I would be very pleased if a course in logic and critical thinking was offered as an optional alternative to math 11 or 12, for students that will not be pursuing sciences or math in post-secondary education.  With analysis of current events in case studies and problem based learning scenarios, it is easy to envisage students being thoroughly engaged in such a course, with the potential of fantastic educational benefits.  I have absolutely no idea on what it would take to push this idea forward, nor have I given much thought to the potential pitfalls; however, I think it is a very interesting idea and something worthy of discussion.  If nothing else it should stimulate ideas on why we teach math, why it is important, and how much “real-life” needs to be brought into the classroom.


Anyways, I encourage people to check out Nussbaum’s book Not For Profit (ISBN-10: 0691140642).  It is a short read with an invigorating thesis, and sure to stimulate some good debate.