Make Money Money, Make Money Money Money! (and Learn Math, too)

Let me begin by saying that, in response to the question Why is 9/09/09 so special?, my response is simple: it’s not.

In fact, I would argue that 09/08/09 is much more interesting. This claim has nothing to do with numerology, and everything to do with President Obama’s speech to the youth of America on the value of education. The speech made very clear the importance of taking education seriously, and hopefully convinced students that a good education benefits not only themselves, but also society at large. In case you missed the speech, the transcript can be found here.

Although the speech was about education in general, mathematics got a little bit of love too. Here’s one such example:

What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.
What a bunch of socialist propaganda. Even so, I’m glad the President decided to emphasize the importance of education today, and I hope that students were able to take something away from it.

As an addendum to this theme, I’d like to point out that while mathematics is an essential tool for fighting disease or curbing global warming, there is perhaps a more immediate benefit to studying math that was not highlighted in today’s speech; a benefit that appeals more to our self-interest than a sense of duty, but with the end result still being a knowledge of mathematics. That benefit, of course, is the almighty dollar.

Last month, the Free Exchange blog over at the Economist highlighted a paper by Joshua Goodman that analyzed the returns on learning math in high school. For some reason Mr. Goodman’s website seems to be down, so the link to the paper is broken, but you can also find the paper here.

What were his findings? While earlier authors had found that each year of schooling is correlated with an eventual earnings increase of 10-15%, Mr. Goodman found that a significant amount of this increase can be attributed to coursework in mathematics (results which were strongest for low-income black males).

Of course, we all know that correlation does not imply causation, so it’s a little disingenuous to say that if you take more math classes in high school, you’ll get more money as an adult (and certainly for those of us in graduate school, it’s easy to imagine that the opposite is true). However, as pointed out on the Economist’s blog:

One reason why people who learn more mathematics earn more is because doing maths makes you smarter and more productive. According to Clancy Blair, a professor of psychology at NYU, the act of performing mathematical calculations improves reasoning, problem-solving skills, behaviour, and the ability to self-regulate. These skills are associated with the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, which continues to develop into your early 30s.

So, while math may not make you richer, it will probably make you smarter – and this in turn can (hopefully) help you live a more comfortable lifestyle.

Then again, how could a lifestyle involving mathematics not be comfortable?

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