Math voted most valuable school subject—but is it?

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A recent Gallup poll concluded that Americans consistently rate math the most valuable subject they took in school, ahead of English, science, and history. Specifically, 34 % of those polled in both 2002 and 2013 rated math the most important subject. English, meaning English, reading, and literature, came in second, with 21 % in 2013 rating English the most important. Between 2002 and 2013, incidentally, science jumped from 4 % to 12 %. Figure 1 shows Gallup’s results for 2002 and 2013 in graphical form.

GallupPoll2013_1.jpg

Figure 1. Percentage of responses to Gallup polls taken in 2002 and 2013. Mathematics held firm at 34 %, whereas science increased from 4 to 12 % at the expense of English, reading, and literature.

The preference for math decreased with increasing educational level, as shown in Figure 2, whereas English increased from 19 % among those with some high school education to 25 % among college graduates and holders of advanced degrees.

GallupPoll2013_2.jpg

Figure 2. Percentage of responses grouped by educational level. The preference for mathematics decreases with increasing education, whereas English, reading, and literature increases.

The poll also found a gender gap, where one sex considered math to be the most important subject, and the other sex was split roughly evenly between math and English. I will let you guess which sex is which.

My point is that almost everyone except those with postgraduate degrees considers mathematics to be the most important subject, with English second. But are they right?

As a sometime teacher of technical writing to undergraduates, who sometimes reads material like this

As a team, we felt that a tube frame would be the best frame of choice. In order to decide on the particular material to use, factors such as strength to weight ratios, overall strength, and extreme temperature endurances had to be taken into account. A titanium alloy was the best choice. Pure titanium tubing was considered, however, they tend to be too soft and thus less practical for the frame. Weight was an important aspect as well. Grade-5 aluminum alloy has a density of 0.159 lbs/in3, is far less than that of steel at 3 lbs/in3. Steel was a metal to compare it too simply because it is so common,

I would have to say no. Even stripped of reading and literature, English is by far the most important subject any American learns in school. Without English, you cannot learn mathematics or history or anything else. That answer should be obvious. Indeed, in 2007, The New York Times noted that 45 % of HR executives advised, Young Workers: U Nd 2 Improve Ur Writing Skills. Only 5 %, incidentally, thought that young workers lacked computer or technology skills.

39 Comments

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I don’t think english either is important.

You don’t have to tell us that.

Well math is obviously the most important thing to study if you want a good foundation for studying science. You have to understand math to understand physics and you have to understand physics to understand chemistry and you have to understand chemistry in order to understand biology which is obviously the most important thing to understand. So sure, math is important, but that’s just because you need it to be able to understand any type of science.

Which is most valuable, of math, science, English (or other language), or history?

Doesn’t a person need at least basic knowledge in all four of those areas?

Weather advanced knowledge in one of those areas is valuable to a person, would depend on what that person wants to be doing.

Also, subsets of each of those areas often have prerequisites among the subsets of the others, so they’re not entirely separate.

Henry

I speak only for myself, mind.

I have often regretted my math blind spot intensely. I can manage arithmetic - I’m actually quite reliable in mere mental calculation - basic algebra, plane geometry, even trig up to the point where it stops being about triangles and starts in on stuff that can’t happen. Calculus? Nuh-uh. As for number theory, when it starts getting weird, my head hurts.

But the regret is not because I have ever needed mathematics higher than that in my personal or professional life. It’s because I can’t follow what science is doing without it. I can’t say as I’ve ever in my life had a need for calculus.

But my teachers made me aware of the fundamental structure of an English sentence, which I believe is not done any more. I count that as the most valuable learning I ever acquired. History… until you know it in outline at least, you have no idea how valuable it can be. A nodding acquaintance with Latin and Greek roots gives all sorts of insights into modern European languages, and more.

But maths… it’s sort of like the bling of the intellect, for most people. Of course, for a scientist, it’s more like a dark suit (or little black dress). You might not wear it all that often, but you certainly should have it for when it’s needed.

I am inclined to say that English – or whatever is one’s native language – is at the top in its importance, but that has to include plenty of experience with literature so that one can sample some of the best ways of expressing and communicating ideas to others.

Facility with language – and preferably more than one language – also lays the groundwork for grasping concepts more precisely while minimizing the chances of conflating ideas. Even if one has a set of precise definitions, such as words associated with concepts in math and science, one also needs to be able to construct unambiguous sentences that convey ideas and allow one to think through relationships among concepts. It is very difficult to write a research proposal, for example, if one cannot see a direct path from theory to experiment and be able to convey that knowledge to reviewers.

One cannot write good technical or instruction manuals with poor grammar that confuses the reader. One can be the inventor of the technology for which the manual is being written and still muck up the technical writing.

There is a similar problem when an individual is highly proficient with mathematics but has difficulty communicating ideas without writing down equations. One of the experimental groups to which I once belonged often used our lunch gatherings to practice expressing our various research activities without the use of math. The effect on the group was quite interesting because the various members of the group not only got better at expressing themselves, they also got better at thinking of ways to improve their experiments.

There is, however, a sort of pseudo sophistication that one acquires with language when one studies logic and debating tactics in order to win debates and promulgate a narrow ideological view of the world. This is the domain of demagogues who speak with “silver tongues,” conflate words and ideas, and lead people astray. No insights come from this use of language.

Henry J said:

Weather advanced knowledge in one of those areas is valuable to a person, would depend on what that person wants to be doing.

I think you mean “Whether”.

Sorry, given the topic I couldn’t resist.

Doesn’t a person need at least basic knowledge in all four of those areas?

yes, and more.

while I took up through linear matrix theory (next step past calculus typically), I wouldn’t put those studies as being any more important than understanding how ecologies work, or cell biology, or, of course, evolution. Also, yeah, we do tend to take our language studies for granted, but they ARE rather critical as well.

in fact, I can’t imagine life without knowing any of the things i learned in secondary school and as an undergraduate.

all have been valuable at one point or another. If anything, you’d have to say that language is the only fundamental thing, since without an advanced understanding of communication itself, learning things like calculus would not be possible to begin with.

«Figure 2. Percentage of responses grouped by educational level. The preference for mathematics decreases with increasing education, whereas English, reading, and literature increases.»

The preference for science also increases with increasing education.

My experience is that most people have a decided aversion to mathematics. Why would they say that it is important?

My late father was the (not “a”) senior project engineer for an international glass-container corporation. He told me that his worst problem with new hires was not their engineering skills, but their reports. He complained that he couldn’t tell whether or not they even knew what problem they were supposed to be solving.

Therefore he hammered me on my English homework just as hard as on my math.

fusilier

James 2:24

Math is more important to me than English. I’ve always used every bit of math I’ve ever learned, and I recognize that I’m limited by the math I haven’t understood. Tensors, for example. I am a retired physical chemist with a Ph.D., and only recently I’ve found the time to pick up more math. As far as English goes, it’s my only language, so I had better have some facility in it.

I don’t know how many people will agree with me, but I believe that the most important subject is one that’s not usually taught as a distinct category, if even at all: rational thinking.

I personally think that the greatest benefit to society would come from a primary/secondary education consisting of a) a general foundation in all the necessary functional subjects, i.e. basic math, language, history, computer skills, etc, b) introductions to more advanced topics, just enough to familiarize the students with which higher education paths are available to them, and c) a thorough grounding in logic, reason, and general problem solving.

In my imagination, c) would start out right at grade one with age-appropriate exercises on how to make rational decisions and spot basic errors in logic, and then to gradually progress into formal logic, the scientific method, ethics, a basic understanding of statistics, how to conduct basic research, how to judge the veracity of sources, and so on. All the tools, in short, needed to really understand the world and make truly informed decisions.

(I also like Dan Dennett’s suggestion of having a mandatory basic introduction to all the major religions, but that’s not a requirement.)

It’s my opinion that we don’t need to give students so much in the way of in-depth instruction in specific topics, but rather to provide them with the means to chart a course for learning them on their own.

Without skills in language and effective communication, life would be difficult at best.

As parents we intuitively know the needs of our children; knowing their wants isn’t easy unless we and they can communicate.

Math may be important, but it won’t help me find relief for my aches and pains at the doctor’s office, satisfy my hunger at the local restaurant, or express my love to my family and friends.

Math may be important in my profession, but if I lose my job, my language skills will help me find another.

Just a few examples. Engage your imagination and run with it.

In my own opinion math is the most important thing foe developing mind and its the most important subject for students to have a good future in any field they are going to enter. However, i wonder why science scored much lower than English? I think it could be scored more!

What is the most valuable school subject? It depends on your goal. What is the goal of education? There are probably even more answers to that question than there are to the original one.

DS said:

What is the most valuable school subject? It depends on your goal. What is the goal of education? There are probably even more answers to that question than there are to the original one.

You are right but i think some basics are needed. Math can develop mind to do most works better. Math is the reason of many improvements in most kind of sciences.

i would suggest that, as a subject in a school environment, math might be more important than language simply because language is more accessible and people are more likely to develop the skills they need independently.

People in general are not prone to doing a lot of independent study on math, even when they know it is holding them back.

I vote for English. I taught math and physics at the high-school level for 35 years. Many important test questions contained the direction: Explain.….. The worst thing a student would see on a paper was not an “X” for an incorrect answer, but the “?” which meant “You have some ‘splainin to do!” (Hat tip to Lucy) Other times the notecards came out with the direction: In 25 words or fewer, … I prized the kids who could write what their minds were telling them.

Last year when talking with a Biology teacher at a local area high school we started discussing standardized testing, and how much of an influence assumptions of being a native English speaker make on the student’s ability to answer the science questions. The example she pointed me to was a particular question in which the students were asked something about classifying a “navel orange”. Teachers are forbidden from providing any explanation to the students during the exam, but afterward several students admitted they didn’t know how to answer the question because they didn’t know if “navel orange” related to a body part, or to a fruit. They may have known the answer, but the peculiar specific (why not just call it an orange?) was distracting.

I think ranking the most importance of a set of subjects that are all necessary seems arbitrary, and completely misses the point.

It’s like asking whether I remembered to lock the door on my way out when my house is on fire.

M. Wilson Sayres said:

Last year when talking with a Biology teacher at a local area high school we started discussing standardized testing, and how much of an influence assumptions of being a native English speaker make on the student’s ability to answer the science questions. The example she pointed me to was a particular question in which the students were asked something about classifying a “navel orange”. Teachers are forbidden from providing any explanation to the students during the exam, but afterward several students admitted they didn’t know how to answer the question because they didn’t know if “navel orange” related to a body part, or to a fruit. They may have known the answer, but the peculiar specific (why not just call it an orange?) was distracting.

I think ranking the most importance of a set of subjects that are all necessary seems arbitrary, and completely misses the point.

It’s like asking whether I remembered to lock the door on my way out when my house is on fire.

Setting a competent, unambiguous question is a non-trivial exercise. Even with a stringent review procedure, it is still possible for it all to go pear-shaped when the candidates get the paper.

My office has a swipe-card lock. When the fire alarm goes off, the lock is released, so we make a point of locking the door behind us when we evacuate the room.

Kevin B said:

Setting a competent, unambiguous question is a non-trivial exercise. Even with a stringent review procedure, it is still possible for it all to go pear-shaped when the candidates get the paper.

Case in point:

What is the most valuable school subject? Most valuable for what? Most valuable according to what criteria? The question as stated is virtually meaningless, hence the wide range of opinions, all of which are correct in some way.

I thought people here had science training.

(1) Surveys evaluate perception, not reality. Americans PERCEIVE math as more important. This has nothing to do with whether it IS more important. (2) Most scientists know you don’t bother with “most important” questions. How many times do you analyze the standardized beta of a regression? Indeed, the idea of “most important” is silly under some causal systems. For example, if we have a bunch of causes that are necessary for an effect to occur, then none of the causes is most important. When we started tutoring our (now) 5 year old son in math, we had to wait until… he could read and follow instructions. Language skills are necessary to learn math skills, so no one with basic math proficiency does not have basic language proficiency, ergo you can’t partial out math value. (3) From the above, the most important skill for being able to answer the question “Which is the most valuable academic subject” is… Philosophy of Science.

If one wants to find out how important language ability is, look at the people who misuse it to misinform and mislead others; look especially at the ID/creationists that we talk about so much on this site.

Here is an ideology that mimics science, gets the real science dead wrong at even the high school level, and then engages in endless exegesis, hermeneutics, etymology, word-gaming, and mud-wrestling over the meanings of the meanings of the meanings of meanings without ever converging to anything.

Experts in the various areas of science cannot communicate fundamental concepts to this group no matter how hard they try. Furthermore, naive fence-sitters looking in on the “debate” have the impression that ID/creationists have deep understanding of science because these ID/creationists use the big words of science.

One really does have to know the symbolic language of math, science, music, and any other discipline that requires precise thinking. But precise thinking needs to be done with a good command of language.

Perhaps it is better to say that language proficiency is a necessary but not sufficient condition; but I suspect it is primary to learning everything else well.

Would anybody actually support English being the most valuable subject?

willisbell1997 said:

Would anybody actually support English being the most valuable subject?

Yes

If I ignore the “in school” part, I’d say the most valuable subjects I’ve learned have been English, math, science, computer science (which is really a branch of mathematics), and computer programming (which is a form of engineering). But I’ve always been an independent learner, and I honestly can’t remember how much of these subjects I learned in school and how much I learned independently… it’s been almost two decades since I graduated from college, after all. But how could I pick one of these as the most valuable? Am I supposed to imagine what my life would be like if I were illiterate, or if I knew nothing of mathematics? The total loss of any one of these subjects would be crippling to my current life.

As far as what we should be teaching in school, I like AltairIV’s curriculum.

I just saw a news report which says that the USA shows the lowest proficiency in mathematics for 18-to-24-year-olds among all countries in the OECD.

willisbell1997 said:

Would anybody actually support English being the most valuable subject?

Yes, specifically because it’s my primary language, but “language” in general as I noted in my earlier post.

Without language and communication skills, we are limited in what we can learn/teach. Language enhances the process of learning about everything else; in most cases it’s the only way to learn, or at least begin to learn.

While experience may be a good teacher, language is necessary to learning the best lesson.

It may be a little counter-intuitive but learning to get to school on time, turn in homework assignments, deal appropriately with both good and bad teachers, getting along with classmates may be the best predictors of success, especially for the less academic - and the lack of these things may be a good predictor even for the academically gifted.

Look at that OP. Evidently, the fastest and most accurate way to communicate all this data about how English is viewed as the most important subject, is to use two graphs to do it. Anyone else find that amusingly self-refuting? Or does the fact that the graphs must be accompanied by text to explain them mean that English trumps Math?

I’d say there’s a perfectly understandable reason why HR and other business management types rate English skills as the biggest issue with new employees. Its because when they hire someone, they put the hiring emphasis on more specialized professional skills.

An example: when you hire someone to analyze financial data and tell you why it’s flawed, you first and foremost hire someone who can do the analysis right. Being able to very effectively “tell you why its flawed” is a secondary concern. From that point forward, you will likely praise that employee for their financial acumen and lament the fact that they can’t write a paper worth a damn. Well, of course not - that wasn’t your hiring criteria.

And, frankly, in most cases it probably shouldn’t be. Given the choice between “capability to do job X” and “capability to communicate results of doing job X,” its going to be perfectly normal for most jobs to rate the first capability as more important than the second. In communications-focused jobs (such as journalism) that may not be the case, but for most jobs, it will be.

I once heard a radio manager discussing (on the radio) their play list. People would call up and ask why, oh why, don’t you play a wider variety of music? Nobody wants to hear the same songs over and over again! Except it turns out, they do. Ratings directly relate to what gets played, and the hard data show that most people change the channel when the hear too much unfamiliar music. When a manager picks songs based on popularity rather than variety, they are choosing the songs their station needs to be successful, even if everyone perceives it as a failure. I think the same sort of problem is occurring here. Bosses are doing what they should, and valuing technical competency over communications competency. But because of a perception mismatch, everyone (including the bosses themselves) constantly complains about the lack of communications competency.

Now of course we would all like to hire that rare gem who is A-rated in Doing Subject and A-rated in Communicating Subject. But given a choice between an A(doing)-B(communicating) candidate, and a B-A candidate, most jobs and employers are going to pick the A-B candidate. For most jobs, that’s the rational choice. But once they do that, they should then stop whining about how everyone they hire seems to have a B-rating in Communicating Subject.

Math and primary language skills. Equally important. Indispensable. (Yes, I know those are not technically complete sentences.) I got those despite a highly disrupted high school education. Since I could read well, communicate effectively, and understand mathematical reasoning, the rest followed. I learned all my biology and chemistry in college. I had picked up high school physics somehow.

The other thing, which, I missed, and which Americans can’t grasp the importance of, is a second language or more during childhood, when you can learn to speak it with a plastic brain. I have adequate French for survival, and Spanish to some extent. I speak both with a thick northern North American Anglophone accent and innumerable grammar mistakes. The way Borat speaks English.

harold said:

Math and primary language skills. Equally important. Indispensable. (Yes, I know those are not technically complete sentences.) I got those despite a highly disrupted high school education. Since I could read well, communicate effectively, and understand mathematical reasoning, the rest followed. I learned all my biology and chemistry in college. I had picked up high school physics somehow.

The other thing, which, I missed, and which Americans can’t grasp the importance of, is a second language or more during childhood, when you can learn to speak it with a plastic brain. I have adequate French for survival, and Spanish to some extent. I speak both with a thick northern North American Anglophone accent and innumerable grammar mistakes. The way Borat speaks English.

A couple of days later, I realized that this comment could seem to denigrate the importance of good science education. That was most certainly not my intention here.

You need to be able to read, write, and understand math to do the other subjects, including science. Students who are short-changed on those fundamentals suffer downstream.

Conversely, it is possible to recover, with difficulty, from relative educational disruption, if those foundation subjects are mastered. However, it is far, far better to have a good science education than to not have a good science education.

Also, I was never subjected to science denial either. I learned relatively accurate things about science from popular culture, and did not have to overcome creationist distortions.

The only reason why evolutionists don’t like the study of math is only because numbers show the vast improbabilities associated with Darwinian mechanisms. A math-literate population would naturally be averse to the indoctrination of evolutionism in schools.

https://me.yahoo.com/a/HVJnIBo.k9XN[…]rLK_k-#51686 said:

The only reason why evolutionists don’t like the study of math is only because numbers show the vast improbabilities associated with Darwinian mechanisms. A math-literate population would naturally be averse to the indoctrination of evolutionism in schools.

We love math. An understading of math is, for example, the reason we know that taking the -log(probability) of a set of mutational events is a laughably incorrect method of predicting the probability of those events evolving by M+NS.

https://me.yahoo.com/a/HVJnIBo.k9XN[…]rLK_k-#51686 said:

The only reason why evolutionists don’t like the study of math is only because numbers show the vast improbabilities associated with Darwinian mechanisms. A math-literate population would naturally be averse to the indoctrination of evolutionism in schools.

Right. That’s why there are so many creationists who love “math”. You know. like the fig Newton of “math” WD. What a great math genius.

DS said:

https://me.yahoo.com/a/HVJnIBo.k9XN[…]rLK_k-#51686 said:

The only reason why evolutionists don’t like the study of math is only because numbers show the vast improbabilities associated with Darwinian mechanisms. A math-literate population would naturally be averse to the indoctrination of evolutionism in schools.

Right. That’s why there are so many creationists who love “math”. You know. like the fig Newton of “math” WD. What a great math genius.

Yes, William Dembski loves his math SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much, he won’t dare let anyone see his numbers for his magic probability calculations that he detects Intelligent Design with.

https://me.yahoo.com/a/HVJnIBo.k9XN[…]rLK_k-#51686 said: The only reason why evolutionists don’t like the study of math is only because numbers show the vast improbabilities associated with Darwinian mechanisms. A math-literate population would naturally be averse to the indoctrination of evolutionism in schools.

Exactly which “vast improbabilities” would you be talking about, O Anonymous Critic Who Certainly Couldn’t Possibly Be A Creationist Because You Didn’t Mention The Word “God”, Not Even Once You Didn’t? I’m confident that a rational, science-favoring person like yourself can identify at least one or two specific instances of those “vast improbabilities”… and since I’m confident that you aren’t a Creationist, I am equally confident that the “vast improbabilities” you refer to are derived from a close, careful study of actual evolutionary theory. As opposed to being derived from, say, the bullshit caricatures of evolutionary theory which Creationist critiques of evolution are, all too often, based on.

But, I say again, I am confident that you, O Anonymous Critic, are not a Creationist, and that’s why I am equally confident that you’re going to respond to the substance of this comment; and when you do so, you will, like, identify at least one of those “vast improbabilities” you mentioned; and that you won’t cite, as examples of said “vast improbabilities”, any of the bullshit not-critiques for which Creationists are noted, such as the celebrated “tornado-in-a-junkyard” not-critique whose ability to generate astronomical levels of improbability is matched only by its near-absolute inapplicability to actual evolutionary theory.

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