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Make “Life Math” Mandatory in Our Schools

By / 5.27.2010

The single greatest threat to our security and prosperity might not be terrorism or biological warfare — it just might be financial illiteracy. Our current economic crisis has myriad causes, but it can be traced to the failure of many Americans to make smart financial decisions. In light of this epidemic of financial recklessness, education leaders should consider making “life math” curriculum mandatory in our schools.

The standard mathematical curriculum in high schools — algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, calculus — is designed to give students the building blocks necessary to further their education and, for some, eventually launch successful careers in science, medicine, engineering and other important fields. For the rest of us, mathematics beyond the basics is mental exercise that keeps us intellectually spry.

I had a great math teacher in high school, Mrs. Wanda Dostall, who helped me achieve the only “A” I ever earned in a math course. While I don’t remember a single algebraic or trigonomic function, the courses I took stimulated my critical thinking skills and challenged me to embrace complexity and search for answers. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t (frequently) ask the question (quietly to myself, and aloud), “When am I going to use this in the real world?”

And that’s why throughout high school, I looked forward to Mrs. Dostall’s “life math” course for seniors. ”Life math” was designed to give students the real-world math skills they would need to manage their personal finances and, hopefully, enjoy financial security. Unfortunately, school administrators decided the course was not “college preparatory” — and I never had the chance to take it.

It’s a shame because I, like most Americans, could have benefited from it. As an adult, I manage multiple checking and savings accounts, pay bills and taxes, and save for my retirement. I have multiple credit cards with varying interest rates. I have applied for and taken out loans, managed and paid down debt, purchased multiple types of insurance policies, and invested in the stock market – and these are just some of the many types of financial decisions that I have made, and many more that I will make in the future.

I also vote for leaders who make critically important financial decisions for our government and economy – they manage budgets, adjust tax rates, negotiate trade policies, administer jobs and safety net programs, regulate financial institutions, monitor fiscal policy, and so on.

This is real-world mathematics. But I never learned this type of real-world math in school. And to me, that’s problematic.

Why Financial Literacy Means a Better Citizenry

I remember Mrs. Dostall’s frustration with our high school’s decision to terminate the “life math” course. She understood that a course in financial literacy, while perhaps not “college preparatory,” was in fact “life preparatory,” and that the mathematics department in our public school had a responsibility to prepare young people for the real world.

I think she also understood that financial literacy is necessary to fulfill civic responsibility. Take a look at what’s been going on the last couple of years. Americans are angry about the Wall Street bailout, and rightfully so. But it’s not just the bailout that worries Americans. Our fiscal house is not in order. Our elected leaders spend more money on government programs, while they cut taxes. To fund the resulting budget shortfalls, they mortgage our future to China.

There’s much to be angry about, and sure, we can play the blame game. We can even attack government as the problem, as the right continues to do. Or, we can act like adults, face reality and own up to our own mistakes.

For too long, too many of us have chosen to live beyond our means. To get more non-essential goods and services too many of us can’t afford — but claim we can’t live without — we have amassed huge sums of debt. Too many of us have taken out loans we can’t pay off and taken on mortgage payments that consume half or more of our monthly incomes. We’ve made poor investments and failed to properly save for retirement.

And what’s really scary is that too many young Americans today, from the “me” generation of the ‘80’s through Generation X, were raised in working- and middle-class families that adopted materialism without consequence as a norm — a way of life that too many young Americans have come to expect.

If that’s not enough to convince you that we need our Mrs. Dostalls to once again teach “life math,” you can see how our poor financial decisions at home reflect the poor financial decisions made by our leaders in government and business. The culture of financial recklessness in Washington and on Wall Street is rooted in our own individual failings — and threatens the prosperity of all, including those who live responsibly and plan for the future.

I think Mrs. Dostall would tell us that we can prevent another prolonged recession; avoid another housing bubble, mortgage crisis and financial meltdown; restore fiscal responsibility; return to the surpluses we experienced in the Clinton years and pay down our debt; and secure our prosperity in a global economy. But for all that to happen, we must first take steps to increase our financial literacy, and make sure our government does the same and regulates Wall Street to balance short-term and long-term gains.

At age 27 with five years of experience in the workforce — and after some personal financial missteps — I am taking proactive steps to increase my own financial literacy. Looking back, I wish there had been a “life math” course available to me in high school, one that would have helped me understand how to create a realistic personal budget; taught me about credit, debt, loans and insurance; and given me lessons in investing for retirement. To equip the next generation with the skills and tools needed to succeed in the real world and chart our nation’s course to fiscal responsibility and prosperity, we should think seriously about making a “life math” curriculum mandatory in secondary education.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Progressive Policy Institute.

Photo Credit: Maximalideal/ CC BY-NC 2.0