Like many other adults, my daughter often says she’s not good at math. But I know that’s not true.

When she was young, I began teaching her to love numbers, play games with them, recognize patterns. I taught her shortcuts that make it easier to do calculations in her head. She’s still very good at all that, as she proved when I found (and we played) an old arithmetic board game called Numble (I wrote about it here).

Her ability to calculate in her head drove her elementary school teachers crazy. One of them asked the class to calculate fourteen times three. My daughter immediately put her hand up and answered, “Forty two!” The teacher asked how she figured that out so quickly, to which she replied, “I just know it.”

Still not satisfied, the teacher asked her to explain how she’d gotten forty two. My daughter, not trying to be a wise-ass but just giving an honest response, said “I multiplied fourteen times three in my head.” The teacher was not happy, for reasons I can’t understand. And don’t tell me it’s about the process of coming to the correct response. If they were studying geography and the question was “What’s the capital of Canada?” and a student answered “Ottawa,” they would not be forced to “show their work.”

By the way, when my daughter told me about the fourteen-times-three exchange that evening, she was smiling. And I was proud.

So, why does she say she’s not good at math?

Because in her last two years of high school, she was made to take classes in trigonometry, pre-calculus, quadratic equations, and the like. She struggled with some of those advanced mathematics topics because she couldn’t relate to them — thus, they weren’t fun. She wasn’t going to study them in college, and couldn’t foresee a career in which they’d be useful to her. That mandatory curriculum soured her on the subject, which is what led to her complaints about her math ability.

My daughter’s not alone in this. Many high school students run into the same math class obstacles and begin to despise the lessons they’re being taught. Concepts like intervals, scalene triangles, and differentials just give them a headache. Yes, they’re important tools for students who show interest and may go on to study them further after graduation, and should be available as electives, but it’s a waste of time and energy for the rest.

The latter group should instead be instructed in how to think critically. The ability to reason is sorely lacking in our society. It’s why misinformation and disinformation are so easily absorbed without so much as a raised eyebrow. Lies and falsehoods that go viral on social media have a negative impact on all of us when they are believed by large swaths of adults without a second thought.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time, but only got around to writing about it today after reading Travis Meier’s op-ed for the Washington Post:

Only 22 percent of the nation’s workers use any math more advanced than fractions, and they typically occupy technical or skilled positions. That means more than three-fourths of the population spends painful years in school futzing with numbers when they could be learning something more useful.

I’m talking about applied logic. This branch of philosophy grows from the same mental tree as algebra and geometry but lacks the distracting foliage of numbers and formulas. Call it the art of thinking clearly. We need this urgently in this era of disinformation, in which politicians and media personalities play on our emotions and fears.

Logic teaches us how to trace a claim back to its underlying premises and to test each link in a chain of thought for unsupported assumptions or fallacies. People trained in logic are better able to spot the deceptions and misdirection that politicians so often employ. They also have a better appreciation for different points of view because they understand the thought processes that produce multiple legitimate conclusions concerning the same set of facts. They are comfortable with spirited dialogue about what’s best for our society.

I couldn’t agree more.

Previously on Harris Online…