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Math for Life: Crucial Ideas You Didn't Learn in School

Jeffrey Bennett
Roberts and Company
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Ana Momidic-Reyna
, on

For students in the American education system, mathematics is a required class. Both students and others wonder why we, as a society, require students to learn mathematics or why we even need it. Math for Life answers this question and reverses math aversion by explaining the quantitative aspects of everyday life, which turn out to be crucial for personal and national security. Mathematical knowledge is revealed to be an essential part of becoming an informed and effective citizen.

The author asks us not to look at math as a tool for science and engineering only, but rather “…as a tool that is useful for life.” He portrays the importance of mathematics in issues that affect us daily and that cannot be understood without knowing the underlying mathematics, such as managing your money and housing costs, understanding taxes, reducing the political polarization, preventing the energy crisis, deciding if you should take a loan, and solving the U.S. debt crisis. In particular, the book encourages everyone to learn how to objectively evaluate the statements of politicians, salesmen and the media. There is an entire chapter in which the author explains the math behind the politics of redistricting and its role in our increasingly polarized politics. The reader will understand not only how easily the math of redistricting is manipulated for advantage by those in power, but also how to make a rational decision when casting a vote or deciding which media to trust.

There are many interesting topics discussed in Math for Life. One chapter explains global warming and discusses energy problems. The reader learns how to increase energy efficiency and use of renewable resources. Another equally appealing topic is on the U.S. budget deficit and debt, as well as how our tax system works and how to use our quantitative reasoning skills to “find a way to make a tax system that is better and fairer, while at the same time ensuring that government spends our tax money more wisely.”

The numerous real-life examples in the book emphasize the importance of quantitative literacy in today’s world. Quantitative reasoning helps us to make the right decisions and as such it is a great reason why one should study math. Without necessary quantitative skills one cannot manage a household budget and could become a victim of credit or consumer fraud.

Math for Life emphasizes that is crucial to be able to put large numbers in perspective, analyze the uncertainties associated with numbers in the real world, understand the units accompanying numbers in context, and interpret the context in which we encounter percentages. All of these are mathematical skills which enable people to be informed and flexible citizens, workers, and consumers.

The book argues that our education system is negligent in teaching the importance of statistics in the modern world, with the result that many are left perplexed even by simple statistical concepts. Our educational system is similarly bad at teaching basic financial literacy. Many people do not know the difference of stocks and bonds, do not know what is consumer price index, do not understand the calculations for a mortgage payment and all the factors that should be considered in deciding if that payment is affordable or not, etc.

Mathematics is more comprehensible if we embed it within meaningful contexts. Students (and people in general) demand meaning. So the author’s suggestion for reforming the current curriculum such that it moves from concrete to abstract content is reasonable. The goal is to familiarize the student with the applications of a concept before teaching its purely mathematical content. The book explains the difference between content-driven and context-driven approaches to teaching mathematics, pointing out that the latter will equip students with the type of math they will need in the modern world. As an example, the author considers the exponential function, explaining that it would be much easier and more beneficial if students learned its applications (such as population growth, compound interest, etc) and then learned how to work with it in its most general form. The book argues that the math everyone needs to know is not about memorization, calculations, form, and procedures, in contrast to the current experience of students.

Today’s culture transmits aversive or negative attitudes towards learning, especially towards mathematics. Someone who reads this book would be less likely to say with pride or acceptance that he/she is “bad at math.” It will help them to realize that mathematics is personally relevant. I would recommend it to everyone.

A native of Macedonia, Ana Momidic-Reyna has an M.S. in Mathematics and has also worked for the high energy physicists at Fermilab. While waiting for the opportunity to work on her Ph.D. in mathematics, she keeps up with the field by reading as many mathematics books as she can.

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