Is maths necessary? Well, up to a point

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2012, 10:57am

'Is algebra necessary?' That is the title of one of the most-read opinion pieces written by a political science professor in The New York Times this week. In fact, Professor Andrew Hacker is really asking how much higher mathematics is necessary for pupils who are not studying STEM - or science, technology, engineering and maths - in secondary schools and universities.

This is, I am sure, a universal question asked by many mathematically tortured students throughout the ages. As adults, many of us have the answer - no, algebra is mostly useless. Indeed, that goes with much of the mathematics and science curriculums in secondary school. Sure, decimals, ratios and percentages are very useful for everyone. But it appears that once you have mastered the essentials of arithmetic in primary school, much of what you learn thereafter is way too academic or theoretical to be really useful in your future career. Again, I am only speaking of those like myself who are not working in jobs that require STEM.

Granted, we all know maths is supremely useful and important. Modern civilisation would instantly collapse without maths and science. But Hacker is on the right track. We need to teach maths, even to non-STEM students, but it's time to think about going beyond the usual formal divisions such as algebra, calculus and trigonometry. An example the professor uses is to teach students how to construct the consumer price index, and how its components are weighted. In money-crazed Hong Kong, we can use the Hang Seng Index.

The really useful maths I learned in school I didn't learn enough. In Hong Kong, you are taught compound interest by Primary Five or Six. But after that, you are rarely taught doing useful things with it - how to estimate a stock's real value or how long it takes to pay off a mortgage or student loan. Reporters like me are forever confusing means, variances and medians in simple statistics. Expected value - a key concept behind many TV game shows with cash prizes - is useful to know. The professor is right - it's time to teach more useful maths to those not following in the footsteps of Einstein.