My answer to a question on Quora, with some amendments:
Why is mathematical illiteracy socially acceptable?
Because what is known as “mathematical literacy” is economically redundant: having it, or not having it does not affect earnings of 95% of people. An ever decreasing pool of jobs which require “mathematical literacy” is filled (at least in Britain) by recruiting university graduates from mathematics-intensive disciplines, like mathematics, or physics, or electronic engineering. These jobs require no more than basic school level mathematics skills which are supposed to be given to every school leaver. However, big employers do not trust school marks, and rightly so.
However, a small number of professional occupations require knowledge of mathematics far beyond “mathematical literacy”. Critically, for many nations, this includes certain jobs in the defense and security sector.
The summary: everyone is taught mathematics at school not for his/her personal advancement and enjoyment, but for alleged future employment – which is a fiction for majority of learners. This is misselling of “educational product” on a grandiose scale. Wide acceptance of “mathematical illiteracy” is a natural, and healthy, reaction of the society to this scam.
I support the idea that mathematics has to be taught as music: for learner’s enjoyment and personal development, without any promise of future employment in “music-intensive industries”. This will make mathematics more popular — and much more expensive to teach, which, of course, kills this idea at its roots.
There are also crucially important skills which beg to be taught: mathematics for citizenship, mathematics for protection ones’ rights as a responsible human and a member of the society. Should I explain why this is not part of the curriculum?
A colleague wrote to me recently that “anti-math” campaign had reached his university and was pushed by the university administration. It is easy to explain: they see their task as training, on the cheap, future workforce for businesses; they are not interested in educating citizens or helping young people to boost their spiritual and intellectual potential.
I apologise for plugging my papers, but they contain more on that:
Mathematics for makers and mathematics for users, bit.ly/2qYHtst
As a taster, a quote from one of these papers:
If banks and insurance companies were interested in having numerate customers – as they occasionally claim – we would witness the golden age of school mathematics: fully funded, enjoying cross-party political support, promoted and popularised by the best advertising companies in all forms of mass and social media. But they are not; banks and insurance companies need numerate workforce – but even more so they need innumerate customers. 25 years ago in the West, the benchmark of arithmetic competence at a consumer level was the ability to balance a chequebook. Nowadays, bank customers can instantly get full information about the state of their accounts from an app on a mobile phone together with a timely and tailored to individual circumstances advice on the range of recommended financial products. This kind service can be described in a logically equivalent form: a bank can instantly exploit the customer’s vulnerability.
Perhaps I have to add a disclaimer:
Views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent position of my employer, or any other person, corporation, organisation, or institution.