In the late 19th/early 20th century, the western world had a literacy revolution. Everybody, or most everybody, could read and write. Now, most people did not become scholars, but they could read an article. Most people did not become novelists, but they could write a note that they’ve gone to the grocery store. The amount of value we, as western society, got from this universal literacy is unimaginably big — even though most people do not make their living off of reading and writing. Similarly, thanks to Leonardo de Pizza (AKA Fibonacci), we all can do arithmetic — we can add 154 to 289. Although we have computers to do many calculations now, it is still useful to be able to do simple calculations (how much am I paying for an ounce in two different detergent brands?) Again, the amount of value we got here is unimaginably big — even though now nobody makes their living from arithmetic for a living anymore.
I think in the 21st century, we need to add a few more skills to that roster. First of all, programming. Programming is the literacy of the 21st century. In a world filled with computers, knowing how to automate tasks, and having an accurate model of how software works, makes people better off. I think every kid should learn at least one high-level programming language, to the point where “Send a form letter to all the e-mails mentioned in a text document” should be seen as the equivalent of writing a quick note. While I do not expect everyone to be able to come up with novel solutions to Prisoner’s Dilemma-type situations, understanding the basics around the math of decision making — something like the stuff mentioned in “Smart Choices” — would get them to make better decisions, be it about choosing a major in college or deciding whether to buy a house. Though I cannot point to a concrete benefit, I think teaching the basics of Calculus and Linear Algebra would do a world of good. At least to the point of being able to cover the basics of Quantum Mechanics so that they understand, on a deep gut level, that the world is made of math. That discovery, originally mentioned by Galileo (in The Assayer), shocked the world once upon a time — what does math have to do with nature – and I sometimes get the feeling people still do not, in their hearts of hearts, really believe that.