Friday, June 15, 2007

The Value of Being "Numerate"


the capacity for quantitative thought and expression

I was listening to an EconTalk podcast on my way to school today with Russ Roberts interviewing Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind. During the podcast, Pink said that he thinks it is critical for people to be both literate and numerate if they wanted to succeed in today's economy. This got me thinking and I couldn't agree more.

When I was living in Orlando, I used to teach math at Valencia Community College in Orlando. One of the questions I persistently got from my students was:

"Why do I need to know math?"

I think this chart succinctly answers this question. Compare the salaries of the fields that have significant quantitative orientation with those that do not.

While it is certainly true that it is possible to succeed in life without strong quantitative skills, they help stack the odds in your favor tremendously. What if you don't have strong math skills? My experience as both a teacher and a student is that nearly anyone is able to develop signifcant abilities in most areas through persistent practice. (See my previous posts on "Is A Star Born or Made?" , "The Invisibility Factor of Getting Good", and "The Myth of Talent" for more on this.)

When I was teaching, I had a 50+ year-old woman as a student who was going to college for her first time. She had grown up being told that women were no good at math and was delighted to discover later in life that she really could learn and excel at quantitative thinking. As much as any student I've ever had, her enthusiasm and excitement made teaching a true joy. In her own words: "you really can teach an old dog new tricks!" Anytime I get discouraged about struggling through learning something new, I just need to remember her example to get inspired to plow through.

I would strongly encourage anyone and everyone at any stage in life to build higher levels of numeracy. It makes life both more interesting and more fun and helps develop thinking skills that lead to higher paying jobs. For anyone interested in learning more about mathematical concepts from a layman's perspective, I highly recommend Ian Stewart's Concepts of Modern Mathematics. I am currently reading through it and it provides a concise, clearly communicated overview of many mathematical concepts in a manner accessible to nearly any dedicated reader who understands basic high-school-level algebra. I'd also recommend Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction by Timothy Gowers and Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos. I'd strongly encourage reading books like these to help build an intuitive grasp of what mathematics actually represents to help enhance your interest and understanding of mathematical concepts.

For anyone interested in studying math for economics, I've found nothing better than Alpha Chiang's Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics.

For those with highly developed quantitative skills, Dan Pink encouraged the necessity of developing strong communication skills and fostering creative thinking. For building these types of skills, I'd recommend Strunk and White's Elements of Style, Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book, and Roger von Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head. For economists, I'd also highly recommend Diedre McCloskey's Economical Writing. Dan Pink and Russ Roberts both praised Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards as a great place to start learning artistic skills. It is a book I hope to read soon.

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