As a student, I was not the biggest fan of math. After learning about probability from playing epic rounds of Backgammon in 7th grade pre-algebra, I considered myself a pretty decent math student. But once I passed geometry and algebra and entered calculus, I was in a pretty constant state of treading water amid the infinite variations on the theme of parabola and the inscrutable formulas that indicated which way those curves opened up, and in which quadrant.
When I got to college and there was no math requirement, I piled my humanities courses high and never looked back. Immersed in reading narratives and writing analysis, I was confident I wouldn’t need to worry about what is now called numeracy. And I really didn’t — until I had to take the GRE in order to get into graduate school. Then, I deeply regretted never really mastering math. The GRE was, for me, a humbling experience of not being able to garner a halfway decent quantitative score despite the fact that the math concepts on the test are actually somewhat elementary.
I was thinking about my experience with math as I read Andrew Hacker’s “The Wrong Way to Teach Math” in a recent edition of The New York Times. It was such a relief to read his argument in favor of teaching math as just another kind of literacy. Hacker writes, “What’s needed is a different kind of proficiency, one that is hardly taught at all. The Mathematical Association of America calls it ‘quantitative literacy.’ I prefer the O.E.C.D.’s ‘numeracy,’ suggesting an affinity with reading and writing.”
For years, I felt that I had failed to learn math as a result of a deficiency in my capacity to understand the nature of numbers and what they represent. However after reading Hacker’s article, I now think that the deficiency may have been in how I, a reader and a lover of language, was taught to think about math. I am delighted with the idea that one can become proficient in math in part through proficiency in reading. I also agree with Hacker that we need to become proficient in math, and soon, because “ours has become a quantitative century, and we must master its language. Decimals and ratios are now as crucial as nouns and verbs.”
I remember the wisdom of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, a wonderful book published in 1961 in which a boy named Milo comes to consciousness as a student when he journeys through the Kingdom of Wisdom. There, a war is on between two brothers, King Azaz and the Mathemagician, over which is more important — letters, the domain of Azaz, or numbers, the domain of his brother.
Rhyme and Reason, their adopted sisters, insist that letters and numbers are equally important, to which the brothers grudgingly agree by the story’s end. Little did they know that the two seemingly distinct domains would be so closely tied just over 50 years later.