Amid the great societal shifts wrought by the digital revolution and the transition to an information economy, we are witnessing the rapid transformation of the ways we work and live. Mathematical tools are now prominent in every sector of the workforce, including the most dominant ones; presently, technology companies are the four most valuable companies in the world. This means that power is now even more vested in those with mathematical skills. In the span of a young person’s lifetime, the tools of our daily lives have become mathematical as well. Search engines now satisfy our every investigative whim, with algorithms powered by linear algebra and advertising powered by game theory. Smartphones have become our digital butlers, storing our data in algebraically locked closets, interpreting our voice commands with statistical sensibilities, and pleasing us with a selection of analytically decompressed music.
Yet society has not taken seriously its obligation to provide a vibrant mathematics education for everyone. In many schools, teachers lack sufficient support. Outdated curricula and pedagogies prevent many students from experiencing math as a fascinating area of exploration, culturally relevant and important in all spheres of life. We hear voices in the public square saying that high school students don’t need algebra, or that few people need to be good at math—implying that math is best left to the mathematicians. Some college mathematics faculty effectively declare the same thing by abdicating the teaching of introductory classes, or by viewing the undergraduate math degree as only a pipeline for the production of math PhDs. Over many decades and at all levels—elementary school through college— there have been calls to change the way math is taught; nevertheless, change has been slow, in part because the math curriculum has often served as a backdrop to political quarrels over the nature of education itself.
We are not educating ourselves as well as we should, and like most injustices, this especially harms the most vulnerable. Lack of access to mathematics and lack of welcome in mathematics have had devastating consequences for the poor and other disadvantaged groups. Not tapping everyone’s potential is a loss for all of us and will limit the ability of future generations to solve the problems they will face.
Our failure to invest in people is already affecting us now. We are easily manipulated when we don’t understand how new technologies work but expect them to make decisions on our behalf. We’ve been unaware of the ways that algorithms are used to sort us and track us and divide us—showing us different news, selling us different loans, and stirring different emotions in us than in our neighbors. We witness entrepreneurs unwilling to critique the technologies they are inventing, politicians unable to hold them accountable because of a lack of mathematical sophistication, and a general public unprepared to contemplate its relationship to these technologies.
We all know there’s math under the hood, but otherwise math seems cold, logical, and lifeless. No wonder we don’t feel a personal connection to it. No wonder we don’t feel a responsibility for how it’s used.
From Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Francis Su is the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, an award-winning math educator, and the past president of the Mathematical Association of America. His work has been featured in Quanta Magazine, Wired, and the New York Times.