Devlin's Angle

October 1998

Why Does Back-to-School Imply Back to Math?

Last month, across the nation, parents breathed a sigh of relief as their children returned to school.

Although the schools that those children returned to will differ in a number of ways, one thing they will all have in common is the preeminent status given to English, math, and science. Why do these three subjects occupy the privileged position they do? Indeed, in most districts they are the primary performance indicators that state officials and parents use to evaluate how well a particular school is doing.

In the case of English the answer is obvious: everyone in today's society needs to be literate and able to communicate well. But in a world where everyone can afford a pocket calculator and a great many people seem to be successful in life with little or no mathematical ability or knowledge of science, why do we place so much emphasis on math and science?

Whatever the answer, it's an emphasis with a long history. The desirability for all citizens to have an appreciation of mathematics and an understanding of the nature of the world they live in was first expressed over two thousand years ago by Plato in The Republic.

In the USA, the importance of scientific knowledge was emphasized by such early Americans as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the former founding the Philadelphia Academy of Science in 1751. But it was relatively recent that a mechanism was established to provide general mathematics and science education for all American children. It began in the early years of this century, in large part as a result of the educational theories of John Dewey, who spoke of developing in (all) students "scientific habits of the mind." Speaking at the 1909 Symposium on the Purpose and Organization of Physics Teaching in Secondary Schools (School Science and Mathematics 9, pp.291-292), Dewey said:

"Contemporary civilization rests so largely upon applied science that no one can really understand it who does not grasp something of the scientific methods and results that underlie it; ... a consideration of scientific resources and achievements from the standpoint of their application to the control of industry, transportation, communication ... increases the future social efficiency of those instructed."

Though it is plain that Dewey's goal of "scientific habits of the mind" was never achieved on any appreciable scale, he and his followers clearly had a major impact on the K-12 educational curriculum, where mathematics and science have ever since ranked immediately after English as the most important subjects in the curriculum.

In 1989, prompted by the continuing poor performance by US middle and high school students in international comparisons, President George Bush reaffirmed Dewey's call in his "America 2000" agenda, with the express goals:

The familiar justification for mandatory math and science education is that today's world is so heavily dependent on mathematics and science (in large part through technology) that everyone needs to be proficient in those areas. I don't agree. That's like saying that because our lives are so dependent on the automobile, everyone should be able to fix a car. An automobile-dependent society requires an adequate number of well-trained, skillful auto engineers and mechanics, but for most of us it's enough to know how to drive. Similarly for math and science.

A much better justification for mandatory math and science may be found in Dewey's phrase "scientific habits of the mind." For the vast majority of pupils, it's not so much the subject matter of math and science that is important as the mode of thinking that is involved: the need to collect and weigh evidence, the need to base decisions on that evidence, the ability to think logically, and a willingness to change one's opinion on the basis of new evidence.

For example, last year the Department of Education released a white paper (the Riley report) highlighting the importance of precollege mathematics for entrance to college and success on the job market, especially for low-income students. Using data from several long-term studies, that report found that 83 percent of high school students who took algebra and geometry courses went on to college. That's more than double the rate (36 percent) of students who did not take those courses. Low-income students who took algebra and geometry were almost three times as likely to attend college as those who did not. Moreover, students who had completed those courses did noticeably better at college than their colleagues who did not.

Note that the report did not say anything about passing those math courses, or of achieving a good grade. Simply taking the courses was what led to the benefits. What's more, the benefits were there regardless of the subjects the students chose to pursue at college. The English, history, and art students benefited along with the math and science majors. It's the thought process that makes the difference.

The evidence seems clear: A daily dose of mathematical and scientific thinking is as good for the mind as a daily walk or jog is for the body.

- Keith Devlin

Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.
Keith Devlin ( is Dean of Science at Saint Mary's College of California, in Moraga, California, and a Senior Researcher at Stanford University. His latest book The Language of Mathematics: Making the Invisible Visible, has just been published by W. H. Freeman.