The Challenge of Numbers
Bernard L. Madison
[Reprinted from a collection of essays published in
1991 by National Academy Press, Headline News, Science News.
At the time this essay was published, Bernard Madison was dean of the
Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences]
"I never could do math. It was my worst subject."
We mathematicians hear these words often. Ignorance of mathematics is
considered a badge of normalcy by many Americans. People may grumble
about the teenager at the local fast food restaurant who cannot add a
sum without a picture-coded cash register, or shudder at having to
compute a percentage, but they tend to see such flaws as unremarkable.
Americans are in for a shock. By 1995, eight of the 10
fastest-growing jobs will be based on mathematics, among them
scientists, engineers and statisticians. A majority of the 21 million
new jobs created by the U.S. economy overall during 1985-2000 will
require mathematics skills and a post-secondary education.
As our country faces the task of educating workers for jobs that
cannot even be imagined yet, mathematics is more important than ever
before. The world is changing so quickly that people can no longer
rely on a static set of facts they learned in school to get them
through the rest of their professional careers. Instead, they must
have a strong enough command of the fundamentals so they can adapt
constantly. Clerks must learn to become keypunch operators and then
systems analysts. Those who cannot learn new skills risk unemployment.
No competency is more fundamental in this emerging world than
numerical reasoning, problem-solving and other basic mathematical
skills. Informed citizens must be able to cope with economic
indicators, census data, environmental risk factors and weather
probabilities. College curricula require mathematics and statistics
courses. High technology has invaded the workplace.
How well is the United States positioned to meet this increased need
for mathematics education? Not very. An expert committee of the
National Research Council that studied the situation concluded earlier
this month that the nation's supply of mathematically skilled
teachers, scientists, engineers and others is actuallyshrinking.
211 The number of bachelor's degrees awarded in mathematics in the
United States was lower in 1986 than in 1966, which helps explain why
so many school systems across the country cannot find qualified
mathematics teachers. More than half of the new doctorates in
mathematics are now awarded to foreign citizens, up from only about
one-fifth in the early seventies. By the end of this decade, the
number of new doctoral graduates taking academic positions will be
insufficient to replace retirees. Even this dismal state of affairs
assumes a continued heavy reliance on foreign citizens and makes no
allowance for a projected increase in demand for mathematicians from
private companies and others.
One reason for the shortage of mathematically trained Americans is
that the college-age population as a whole is declining. However, the
equation is more complicated than that. Notably, despite some
encouraging trends, women, blacks and Hispanics still participate in
mathematics-based classes and occupations at rates far below their
numbers. Since two-thirds of new workers will come from these groups,
the supply of mathematically educated workers is diminishing as the
demand grows. That is, unless things change soon.
Mathematics teaching in our country has been hampered by too few
resources, lack of a national imperative, a highly decentralized
system, unimaginative courses and curricula, and no clear
understanding of what is important. At the collegiate level,
mathematical sciences have passed through three roller coaster decades
since the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. During the
'60s, the study of mathematics and science was equated with supporting
democracy, and expanded accordingly. In the '70s, in the face of
increasing college enrollments and an emphasis on social problems, the
job market for many science and math graduates declined. This past
decade, concern about economic competitiveness spurred a partial
Various organizations are now working on better teaching methods and
other promising ideas for the '90s. But the larger challenge exists
outside the classroom in our country's offices, factories, shopping
malls and homes, where many Americans continue to regard ignorance of
mathematics as routine. Such ignorance must be recognized, instead, as
a sentence of obsolescence. Everyone, regardless of race or sex, can
learn mathematics. Everyone should learn mathematics. Until
more Americans get the message, our national well-being is very much