Not Just Lawyers, But People, Are Bad at Math

One of my living heroes, Richard Posner, lamented the growing numbers of lawyers who are bad at math in a decision published this past week. He noted a common refrain that I hear daily among my law school classmates: “I went to law school to avoid math!”

Posner himself comes from the opposite mold, as a leading member of the field of law and economics. As anyone whose read his works, blog, or decisions, he’s certainly an individual who always thinks about the repercussions of policy decisions and trends in society. I think his lens to view the world through is a great one, especially for someone who actually has a measurable impact on society not just through his publications, but his legal decisions. Ironically, it’s the prevalence of such material that keeps a highly qualified individual such as himself as even outside consideration for a Supreme Court seat – he’s written too much and his views are too well known and attackable.

Bigger Than the Law

As troubling as this is for the legal profession that plays a role in shaping society’s legal rules, Posner might as well have been addressing a much larger group of society – namely almost everyone. “I went to law school to avoid math!” could easily have been replaced “to study journalism” | “to study marketing” | “to study psychology ” | “to be a politician.” Yet kids who study these other fields are also in important society-molding roles just like lawyers. We need to encourage society to have a better understanding of the basics of statistics and financial concepts like interest rates, so that we’re all richer. While there’s some debate as to the possibility of too few STEM degree holders,  people could use stronger foundations in basic mathematical concepts. While I feel like every week I read an article saying how we’re the worst country in the world at math and science and writing, and somehow only getting worse over time, and think that overall we could do better, outside evidence notwithstanding.

But how to solve it? 

A recent article claimed that the main difference between kids who are good at math and who aren’t good at math isn’t some innate ability. It’s mostly hard work and effort. I think at a remedial level that’s certainly true and is a great start. I know a good number of people who consider themselves as ‘not math people’ who then ended up studying basic Computer Science for work, or learned how to do some sophisticated cost/benefit analysis in their fields. It wasn’t easy at the time, but they’ve been successful with it. But longer term, it’d be great to get these people interested in these skills before they’re thrust upon them for the sake of ‘marketability.’

That’s why we need a year-round academic school year at least until High School. This was a common debate topic I saw in college, but I think Matthew Yglesias has a pretty good starting point. I think the easiest way to implement this is to resurrect and expand summer school concepts, and have a a greater variety of non-remedial options available. Then students would retain options for internships, as there are certainly students who can excel in HS despite the limited hours and would do well to have other opportunities. There are always some students who take college classes in HS or did research with a lab. This system I think still brings up the quality of the lowest student, but gives the highest achieving students some opportunities to spend some time outside the school system. While this would still benefit students who could afford to take these opportunities compared to others who are less financially stable, I still think it’s a more cost effective solution than requiring the school to maintain resources for the three or four kids every year who excel well beyond their grade level. Either way, maintaining the status-quo just because we’re used to it is not a sufficient reason to do.

Final Thoughts

Not to sound overly ‘woe is me’ but I understand the ‘I’m not a math person refrain.’ I graduated high school with the belief I was pretty average at math, despite taking classes like AP Physics, AP Statistics, and AB Calculus and getting a high mark on both exams.This was partially because my school had extremely high requirements for the students taking the BC Calculus class available and my own lack of diligence of doing homework and more than the bare minimum to understand the material at the time. The end result was me not pursuing a Physics degree during undergrad – which I don’t regret since I think Economics was far more useful in daily life. But I shouldn’t have let my math belief limit me from pursuing Physics, or even something like Engineering – which if I was to go back through college and do all over again I’d probably consider pursuing.