A Commonsense Approach to Mathematics: If Everyone Thinks It is Useless, It Probably Is Useless


Dr. Jonathan Kenigson, FRSA

Mathematics education in the K-16 system leaves many students struggling with a crisis of relevance. Students are taught very abstract concepts before they have mastered the basics. The result is bucket-braining of disconnected mathematical facts and forgetting real-life uses of mathematics. Many students can calculate a simple integral or trigonometric ratio but cannot find tax on a purchase, tax owed, credit card balances, or simple interest. They cannot calculate the down-payment on a house, make an informed decision on student-loan debt, find how much savings they need on-hand to weather a fiscal crisis, or calculate the percentage discount when comparing purchases.

This sort of innumeracy is a threat to any free market because clients cannot make informed decisions about the purchases they stand to make or the savings they should have. It is also a threat to a Republic. Citizens who cannot compute interest rates, add fractions, find a percent increase, or determine a best offer on a loan are also unable to consider the policy implications of debt, war, inflation, unemployment, or the value of insurances. Instead of taking more mathematics classes that are irrelevant to daily living, students should master basic arithmetic and be able to do it quickly and proficiently in the contexts that demand its application. Even having a calculator is of no benefit when a person cannot interpret or explain what they are computing. Only after thorough proficiency in basic arithmetic should students be permitted to advance to higher-order mathematical topics. Courses should be structured, and exams should be given that test the practical knowledge that everyone should possess to make informed choices about savings, debt, purchases, economic policy, leases, and homeownership.

Secondary schools hamstrung by state regulations on curriculum and instruction may be partially unable to meet this demand. Community Colleges, however, should meet it by active and engaged instruction in fundamental mathematical topics and should demand that all students possess true proficiency in these topics before permitting progression to higher mathematics courses. If students, professors, and administrators cannot honestly explain where a fundamental mathematical topic arises in the daily lives of students, that topic is truly irrelevant to the sort of education that every person should receive. Students with food insecurity, bank overdraft fees, late rent payments, and no knowledge of economics should not and do not care about simplifying abstract polynomial expressions. Once students master fundamental concepts – by rote, if necessary – they should be permitted to proceed to more advanced mathematical topics. Livelihoods and lives depend upon basic mathematical knowledge. That knowledge should be especially ready-to-hand for every student that receives a community college diploma.

About the Author.

Dr. Jonathan Kenigson is the Acting Academic Don of Athanasian Hall, Cambridge Limited, an independent think-tank drawing top mathematicians, physicists, philosophers, and natural scientists from around the world. He is a specialist in the dynamics of Black Holes, Combinatorics, and classical education. In the opinion of U.S. and UK (United Kingdom) commentators, Athanasian Hall is the world’s leading think-tank in Quadrivium studies in 2021-2022 and has the largest and most academically diverse faculty of any such institute in Europe or North America.



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