Math Tops List of Most Valuable Subjects

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

"But I'll never need to use this stuff!" is doubtlessly a familiar refrain heard by many math teachers. However, it is a rarely accurate one. In August 2002*, Gallup asked American adults, "Thinking about all the subjects you studied in school, which one, if any, has been the most valuable to you in your life?" Math, the perennial whine-maker, topped the list.

In the poll, 34% of Americans said they found math to be the most valuable of all subjects. Twenty-four percent said they have gotten the most mileage out of English/literature/reading. A much smaller number, only 7%, picked the next runner-up, history. Only 4% each noted science/physics/biology or business/finance/accounting. The remaining votes went to economics, social studies, foreign languages/language arts, psychology, home economics, and theology/religion -- each mentioned by 2% of the population or less.

Dolls and Dictionaries; Catcher's Mitts and Calculators

The most predictable demographic differences are found between men and women. Neuroscientists have postulated that women's brains may be more verbally agile, while men's may be more receptive to tasks involving spatial relations. The poll doesn't challenge that theory -- slightly more than twice as many women (32%) as men (15%) have found the most value in their schooling in English. Far more men (41%) than women (28%) feel math has been the most valuable subject. However, the sexes equally value their education in both natural and social sciences.

Higher Education, Lower Math Appreciation

There are also some interesting demographic differences by education level. The most highly educated Americans, those with postgraduate degrees, are significantly more likely to value English and literature (36%) than math (16%). Among other educational groups, at least a plurality said math is the most valuable subject, including 44% of those with a high school education or less (only 20% of this group said English), 31% who attended some college but did not graduate (31%, while 27% of this group said English), and those with a college degree but no postgraduate training (34%, while 19% said English).

In recent years, female college graduates have begun to outnumber male grads (see "Degrees of Change: Female Grads Outnumber Males" in Related Items), and girls are more likely than boys to complete high school. However, doctoral programs are still largely populated by men, suggesting that the finding that this educational group believes English is the most valuable subject is not necessarily a product of gender differences. Indeed, the data suggest that while there is still a gender gap in regard to English versus math as most valuable among the postgraduate group, men in this group are much more likely than men in other groups to say English is the most valuable subject.

It's possible that people value the school subjects that they use most often, especially those they use at work. Everybody needs a certain facility in math, if only just to tell time or balance a checkbook. But the professions that require high levels of education -- particularly those in academia -- tend to routinely require reading, writing, and the kind of critical thinking taught in English classes. So, though these individuals need and use math, they may find English skills are more valuable because their livelihoods depend on them.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 5-8, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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