While it is undeniably true that many of the math community's problems are self-inflicted, it is equally true that much of the difficulty lies in the nature of mathematics. Mathematics is hard. People are intimidated by the complexities, thought processes, rigor, and unforgiving precision that mathematics demands. For the overwhelming majority, math is not a subject that lets you be an autodidact.

To make matters even worse, mathematics remains one of the most poorly taught subjects in both K-12 and university education. Indeed, the nature of mathematics is such that one can have superb teachers for five or six consecutive years—but that one poor teaching experience can effectively undermine both the interest and the ability to further pursue the subject. Efforts to reform the math curricula have invariably led to disappointment. The practice in many schools of singling out the mathematically gifted and putting them in accelerated classes or special programs further underscores that math is the province of a quantitative elite rather than a discipline that should be relevant and accessible to the mainstream.

Even those who perform well in mathematics do not necessarily like the subject; and people who perform at average or below-average levels tend to dislike and avoid it. Indeed, it is shocking how few public high schools and universities have instituted anything beyond minimal competency requirements in mathematics for their nonscience students to graduate. While virtually everyone in the educational establishment acknowledges the ''importance" of mathematics, there remains absolutely no agreement about how that importance should be mapped onto a curriculum. Even if there were consensus, do the schools even have the teachers who could effectively communicate that?

That said, the ideal of a "mathematically literate" public becomes completely ridiculous. The pursuit of a mathematically literate population is doomed to be a dead end and a waste of time. Yes, there is no consensus as to what constitutes mathematics literacy. But, more importantly, even if some sort of realistic criteria for math literacy were defined and the resources were magically there, just how long would it take to achieve it? Just how much would today's math-indifferent population care about their degree of math literacy? Indeed, even if the population were not indifferent, just how long would it take to acquire the skills and knowledge to become literate? The harsh reality is that the educational foundation for mathematical literacy is just not there. So the challenge becomes what to do when appropriate literacy is neither possible nor practical.

To further complicate the challenge, the mathematics community has grievously wounded itself by alienating the very communities that should be its natural allies. One Stanford engineering professor recalls, with incredulity and annoyance, taking a grad math class at the California Institute of Technology because his math friends said that the professor was tops in the field. The engineer did poorly in the class because his proofs weren't deemed "elegant" enough by the math professor. To this day, he speaks of the episode with a mix of bitterness and annoyance.

Indeed, many science and technology students who reside two full standard deviations above the popular norm in math skills and knowledge speak resentfully of their math education in university. They feel as if they are treated as stupid general contractors and handymen by the mathematics architects—as people who are competent enough to build, but not gifted enough to appreciate, the "true" value of mathematics.

Consequently, even people who inherently appreciate the importance of mathematics as a discipline are less than enamored of the mathematics community as its guardian—they learned in

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement