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Why Numbers Count: Foreword

by Robert Orrill

Excerpted with permission from "Why Numbers Count: Quantitative Literacy for Tomorrow's America," Copyright (c) College Entrance Examination Board, 1997. All rights reserved.

It is perhaps not surprising that the authors and respondents in this volume come back again and again to the subject of education. How do we nurture quantitative literacy throughout all parts of American society if not through our schools and colleges? When contributors make this assumption, however, it becomes clear that their observations about quantitative literacy challenge traditional approaches usually taken to orienting the mathematics curriculum in this country.

Generally speaking, there have been two such overarching orientations in this century, each of which has been pursued not just separately, but often in opposition to the other. One of these guiding perspectives conceives of mathematics as a "discipline" or "study" possessed of its own formal structure and progression. In this conception, the orientation for study at any point is not in the world outside schools or colleges, but primarily the next course in the sequence. As translated into school practice, this closed structure and its sequential border--arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and so on--has been largely shaped by the defining concerns and interests of research universities. This orientation, of course, brings with it the problem that the mathematics that many study in school and college is defined much too narrowly and with little regard for the needs and interests of large numbers of students.

Different from the first, the second orientation attempts to shape the mathematics curriculum according to operations and skills required in particular "vocations" or "jobs." In this view, the assumed career terminus or destiny of a student is thought of as something such as nurse, electrician, or hotel manager. It also assumes that school mathematics should be largely defined by work and economic considerations, not the liberal or theoretical learning pursued in colleges and universities. This approach, of course, has been plagued by the fact that the vocations of one generation are not those of the next, at least not in a society like ours where change is more the norm than the exception. Indeed, we are told that most individuals now change careers several times within one lifetime. Added to this, the nature of work itself currently appears to be undergoing dramatic change, marked by the need for sophisticated quantitative skills in an ever larger number of vocations.

Such an approach, then, seeks stable guidance from a source or direction always in flux and undergoing change. Moreover, it would seem to be an orientation that helps students only toward fixed places in which few will remain over their entire careers. Instead of this kind of preparation, what most [students] require are the competencies and virtuosity needed to do well in many different kinds of situations, not to mention the capacity to consider the purpose and significance of all that they do. Furthermore, as we sadly know, the dichotomizing of these dual aims (with their separation into different curricular "tracks") has helped perpetuate social and class distinctions that should have no place in American society. This, of course, is not the fault of educators but rather the result of biases deeply ingrained in our society at large.

Instead of this kind of preparation, proposals about reform of mathematics education have often centered on how to unify or combine these two orientations into one integrated approach. Especially recently, the hope has been to provide all students with a mathematical grounding that is at once theoretical and applied, conceptual and concrete, scholastic and practical. If this were achieved, it would indeed be an important step forward in meeting the educational needs described by the contributors to this book.

A very real difficulty, however, may be that all this cannot be done only in mathematics classrooms, which does not mean, of course, that mathematics educators should put aside efforts to achieve a better balance of the two aims. Instead, it may be that the challenges involved in producing a quantitatively literate society are so many and varied that we can only hope to meet them if the responsibility is shared by teachers in all subjects. Indeed if the needs for quantitative competence are now as pervasive in American life as this volume indicates, as well as so diverse in form and substance it seems only common sense that the responsibility for fostering quantitative literacy should be spread broadly across the curriculum. A clear message heard from several contributors to this book, in fact, is that opportunities to practice and utilize quantitative skills must be part of all subjects and under the assumed care of teachers in all disciplines.

Robert Orrill is Director of the Office of Academic Affairs at The College Board. He can be reached by e-mail at rorrill@collegeboard.org.

To add your voice to this discussion, e-mail comments, letters, and op-ed articles to: extend@stolaf.edu or click here.

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Last Update: July 17, 1997