Deborah Meier (author of The Power of Their Ideas) co-writes the Bridging Differences blog with Diane Ravitch. Meier's topic today is 'Why School?' She is discussing what she hopes students will learn in school. Deborah Meier has done amazing work, and I usually like what I read at her blog. But her conception of math seems terribly shallow to me:

Sufficient mathematics to make sense of what they find in the media—statistics, probabilities, forms of graphing, percentages, et al to a high degree of sophistication by the time they are 16. Basic arithmetic computation by 13.I agree that one reason to learn some basic math is to be able to have intelligent opinions about national issues: Is it more costly to have single payer health care or what we have now? Is social security doomed because more and more of our population is the elderly? I would never have expected to be interested in a blog on the tax code, but Mary O'Keefe (who runs the Albany Area Math Circle) writes great posts about issues like this on her tax blog. How can you understand national budget questions if you get nervous about numbers?

So yeah, these are reasonable goals, but dreadfully insufficient.

Here's what I wrote in response:

Deborah, I have a deep respect for you and the work you've done. So I was distressed to see your opinion of what math students should know - mostly arithmetic and statistics. Well, that's a fine start, but it is not enough.

Shouldn't they know enough math to understand science? Shouldn't they see the beauty of math? Two books, accessible to anyone, that I'd highly recommend, are

What Diana said above about literature and history applies to mathematics as well: We will teach mathematics because it is important and beautiful. We will teach it not because it will save our society, not because we "must" know particular techniques, but because we simply do not have it in our hearts to do otherwise.The Cat in Numberland, about infinity, andPowers of Ten. (I've blogged about a number of fun math books at my blog, Math Mama Writes.)

I don't feel like I was particularly eloquent. If you think math is important for more than these basic uses, please go on over there and say your piece.

And I'd love to hear from you here. Why is math important? And what math is vital for schoolchildren to learn? I love math, but I don't feel clear on why people who don't love it should learn it (beyond the basics discussed above).

Part II. Why School?

Meier labeled her post 'Why School?' in response to Mike Rose's new book with the same title. I've enjoyed his previous books, Lives on the Boundary and Possible Lives, so I expect to like this one too. Whether it will answer some of the questions I find most difficult remains to be seen.

My personal vision of the ideal school is more like a kids' community center, where the children decide how to spend their time, and are surrounded by resources and adults who want to share in the learning adventure. Deborah and her respondents talk about what should be 'required'. I don't think it's possible to require students to learn anything. The best we can do in a system based on requirements is to show the students (who are usually still eager to learn, if it appeals to their own values and priorities) why our subject is vital. That's why I love the work Dan Meyer and Kate Nowak are doing making high school math topics relevant for their students.

These two questions go deep for me: Why Math? Why school?