September 04, 1991|By Michael Hill

There was a professor of mine in college who used to preach a lesson that did not sit well in the days when cries of "relevance" drowned out all others in the educational realm.

This man said that one purpose of an education was to let the students know that sometimes they had to do things that they didn't want to do -- and do them well. Hindsight, of course, proves that to be a very relevant lesson.

For many, that is the only purpose of learning mathematics. As with calisthenics in 90-degree August heat under the direction of a football coach, you struggle with sines and cosines and functions and integers in the hope that these exercises will make your brain more nimble and supple when the real game comes along.

"Math . . . Who Needs It?" an energetic PBS hour that will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 8 o'clock, tries to persuade the skeptical that math is an important part of the real game.

Jaime Escalante, the Los Angeles public school teacher who was the centerpiece of the movie "Stand and Deliver" is the featured attraction, and his teaching of the subject to a class provides the thematic structure throughout the hour.

In between are various segments, many featuring celebrities talking about their math deficiencies and how much they realize that they really do need to know this subject. Bill Cosby, Teri Garr, Joe Piscopo, Paula Poundstone, Marla Gibbs and Paul Rodriguez are among those to appear. Comedian Jeff Altman does a routine about his first math class at Johns Hopkins.

And then there are brief feature segments designed to show how important math is to everything from building a bridge to designing a skateboard; from figuring out the biomechanical requirements for Nike shoes to sculpting the sound for Clarence Clemons at the Hollywood Bowl; from calculating the profit and loss of a retail clothing store to understanding the G-forces that a roller coaster will withstand; from engineering a race car to knowing a quarter note from a half note.

Escalante, a Bolivian native who seeks to instill in his students a special combination of pride and desire he calls "ganas," comes off as one of those dream teachers. He's a natural comedian, a born entertainer, who clearly keeps his classes lively and his students awake. He displays all sorts of tricks and riffs and seems to know when to beat the kids with shtick and when to throw stones. The segments are clearly staged -- and a bit stagy -- but the point is well made.

It's obvious that Escalante loves math, enjoys the intricate dance of numbers, the beautiful symmetry of equations. But the main lesson he seems to try to instill in his students is not to love math, but to love achievement, to find the sense of satisfaction that comes with figuring something out, with getting the right answer.

It's a good, important lesson, but it's not really the one "Math . . . Who Needs It?" is all about. You can teach that lesson with any subject, not just math.

Even the segments about all the careers that require math don't really carry the message to a skeptical audience. Sure you need math for a lot of jobs, but, many kids might say, not for what I'm going to do. So you need math to design a Nike, you don't need it to wear a pair.

The fact is that we as a society are more and more divorced from basic mathematics. It was a few short years ago that people running cash registers at supermarkets and fast-food outlets had to look at the total price and at the money you were giving them and instantly figure out how much change you were due. No more. They just look at the cash register and it tells them. That math part of the brain is weak and flabby from lack of exercise. When was the last time you balanced your bank account without a pocket calculator?

What "Math . . . Who Needs It?" really should be tellings students is that, no matter what sort of job you eventually get, calculators can't do it all. You will constantly be called upon for basic math skills.

But that doesn't answer the question of who needs algebra, trigonometry and calculus. Face it, if you're not in some sort of engineering profession, the quadratic equation is probably not a part of your daily experience. Yet there is another reason you need math, beyond the mental exercise, beyond the practical application, a reason that "Math . . . Who Needs It?" unfortunately just touches on occasionally.

In learning math -- as in learning grammar or physics or even law -- you learn how to think systematically. You learn to take a set of rules that work in solving one problem and apply them to a whole bunch of problems. You learn to organize your thinking logically and cohesively.

Long after the specifics -- the quadratic equations, the logarithms, the cosines -- have disappeared from most of our memories, the systematic structure will still be there, ready for use in all aspects of life.