April is Mathematics Awareness Month, or MAM. Some of us are painfully aware of math this month -- we may be suffering from an acute case of MAM -- as it's time to pay the taxman. But once we stop the bleeding, let's consider the relevance of mathematics to a well-lived life.
Math is fundamental to our world. It's even in the news: Just this morning I read two stories about math, one about the synchronization of all 4,500 traffic lights in Los Angeles, a metropolitan first, and one about the fact that only one in 10 job applicants at General Plastics in Tacoma, Wash., can pass the 18-question math test necessary for employment. We need math, we benefit from it, and yet we stink at it. It's definitely time for more awareness.
We Americans have a love/hate relationship with math. Sure, we know that numbers drive the economy and our personal budgets and all that, but many of us fail to see the connections between math and life. We don't have much curiosity about the wonder and intricacy of numbers. We are strangely unembarrassed to say things like "Oh, I'm no good at math." But think of it: One never hears anyone just as blithely say, "Oh, I just can't read." To the consternation of math teachers everywhere, and to the corresponding smugness of English teachers, illiteracy is a personal shame; innumeracy is a boast. Parents are admonished to read to their children almost as soon as they are born, and to be sure that children see their parents reading, but they are not told the same things about math. Math, however, is every bit as important to our lives as the ability to read.
Because my husband was an elementary math teacher when our daughters were little, math often had a place at our family table. Every Monday, he gave his students a Problem of the Week, or POW. Whenever a daughter was in his class, as happens in a small town, the current POW became lively dinner conversation. The POWs were designed to tempt young people to think mathematically, but they also contributed to family camaraderie, as we solved for x together.
Now my husband is a university professor and teaches beginning teachers how to teach math. He is pulling for the new Common Core standards for students, believing that the math currently taught in school is not mathematics, but mere computation. Students are taught to memorize and pass tests, to function as little calculators: it's all about the how, but rarely about the why. He believes in teaching kids to deconstruct math processes, to look under the mathematical hood and tinker, to see how math works. He can get passionate about the cosmic way that decimals and percentages and fractions are interrelated in the real world, and speaks highly about something called Fibonacci numbers.
The kind of math my husband enthuses about makes me nervous. I like to imagine myself as one who can grasp the abstract, who can see the big conceptual picture, but I have a wide streak of pragmatism. In a utilitarian way, I get how numbers add up and divide. I can even do most of the figuring in my head. I'm in trouble, though, when it comes to patterns and reason, which are the heart of mathematics. I scratch my head, and concentrate, but any math beyond calculation makes me feel a bit like Winnie the Pooh, a bear of very little brain, who exhorts himself, to little avail, to "think . . . think . . .think . . ."
Mathematics Awareness Month, therefore, is helpful to someone like me, who can be either oblivious to or intimidated by the math that is all around us. The theme for MAM in 2013 is the Mathematics of Sustainability. In the age of climate change, we need more than ever to balance the human needs for progress and technology with the well-being of the planet and its resources. I know: 'climate change' is a loaded alliteration, but before we overreact, let's keep in mind that MAM was created in 1986 by none other than President Ronald Reagan. "Society and individuals will need to make challenging choices; mathematics provides us with tools to make informed decisions," according to the MAM website. Mathematics can help us to understand the complexities that face us, as well as enable us to formulate sound policies, for the present and the future.
Even without a great mathematical mind, I understand that much of life can be like a word problem, in which we must solve for x. The ability to understand the question, and then to apply the appropriate knowledge and techniques to answer a particular challenge, can be both algebraic and philosophical. We are often tasked with solving for x, in matters of finance or building or parenting or relationships. A mathematical awareness can help us to see and appreciate the innate beauty of numbers, just as a poem can uncover the beauty of language. Even for us bears of very little brain, math matters.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at email@example.com.