The Rising Cost of Innumeracy: An Opinion by Mark Prelli, Classical Magnet School Math Teacher

As a math teacher in Hartford for ten years, I have heard the following phrase over and over. “I’m just bad at math. No one in my family can do it, I’m just never going to get it.” My response is always that of course they can, but it is a cultural problem that is solvable with a little help from the other adults in the students’ lives.

When I was at Bates thinking about philosophy, one of the things that interested me was John Locke’s tabula rasa (blank slate) philosophy. To paraphrase, he is saying that we are all born blank slates and we can all learn to do anything. This is powerful stuff, especially as it applies to my students above. If they are truly blank slates, I can help them write numeracy on their mind’s chalkboard in Sharpie. To this end, I run a seminar every year on the first day of class to discuss whether or not the blank slate is a real thing. Then, my Socratic questions become mathematical. For instance, “Do you think everyone can do math? Why or why not? How would Locke feel about your answer? What keeps you from excelling at math? What can you do to change that? What can I do to help you this year in my class?”

The shame of all of this is that numeracy should be as important as literacy. No one looks at a book or a road sign and proudly proclaims, “I can’t read!” However, how many times have you heard someone say they can’t do math – without even a hint of embarrassment? Sometimes there’s even an “I’m so cool I don’t need math” timbre to their voice. We need to change that culture. Adults need to stop saying that math is hard and telling their kids and their students and their relatives that it’s ok not to learn it because it was a struggle for them too. Do we tell dyslexics that because reading is hard for them they should stop trying? No. Let’s be Tywin Lannister and make Jamie read.

Another related point: every year since I became a math teacher, there has been a “reading/writing across the disciplines” initiative. I have participated gladly, asking students to write post seminar reflections and justify their mathematical decisions, and teaching vocab every day. Hence, usually the verbal scores on standardized testing increases. Everyone in every subject is expected to teach reading and writing. What happened to ‘rithmetic? There is a need for this in our country, and until it’s addressed our students will continue to be sub par mathematicians and unsuccessful financially. They’ll take out credit cards that offer 0% and not realize it changes to a variable 22% after 3 months. Then they’ll wonder why their mortgage is upside-down and they have to declare bankruptcy and live with their parents. No man is an island, and neither is any math teacher. We need parents as well as teachers of other disciplines to jump in, show the connections their subject has to math and help make it relevant.

I’ll end this with a plea: If you ever find yourself about to tell a child that it’s ok, math is hard and you never got it either, please stop. Instead, tell them it’s a beautiful language that they can learn to read, and that if they do their lives will be immeasurably enriched. They will open career doors, understand personal finances, be monetarily successful someday and be an educated, critical citizen who is capable of looking at a statistic and evaluating whether or not they are being lied to. When we can all make smarter financial decisions, we will stop letting credit card companies take advantage of us. We’ll stop bailing out banks who gave us ridiculous, untenable mortgages. As a society, we will learn to prosper. But first, we have to live by the tenet, “we all use math every day.” You can certainly live your life without thinking much about mathematics. Many people do, and proudly admit it. However, compared to someone who is aware of math and facile with it, those folks will have a tougher time. So in conclusion, even if you really feel like you’re bad at math, please resist the urge to tell anyone. You wouldn’t tell them if you couldn’t read.

For more about the bank bailouts, see this article:

Of note – they’ve repaid 66 billion which seems like a lot. However, they were loaned 700 billion, so they’ve only paid back the government 66/700, which is only 9.43%. The way the numbers are reported make it sound like the banks are doing a great job, but they still owe 90.57% and they wouldn’t give us a home loan with only 9.43% down.

Mark Prelli is a math teacher at Classical Magnet School. The seminar he refers to is the Paideia Socratic Seminar, part of the theme of Classical. Students participate in seminars in every class every few weeks in every class, in preparation for a rigorous liberal arts college experience – in fact, a few years ago, a student gained acceptance to every ivy league college.