Isaac Asimov wrote a story with that title. It was set in a future in which no one remembered how to do math. Not just calculus or algebra, but even the basic operations in a four-function calculator. Calculating machines were everywhere. You just punched in numbers, and out came the answer. (After he wrote that story, he wrote his book on how to use a slide-rule, just in time for the thing to become obsolete.) His publisher commented, "I can't believe people would ever forget how to do math." I've encountered any number of kids (and adults!) at fast food places who obviously never learned.
And the art of teaching math has declined. My "adopted niece" is in middle school now, and her teachers have never required that she learn the multiplication tables. Because her teachers never required it of her, she didn't listen to her parents and grandmother when they told her she needed to memorize them.
Now, although they're still not "required", she's learning the hard way that there's no substitute for knowing them.
Clayton Cramer points out that the same thing is happening with reading and writing – indeed, the use of written language altogether. People don't need to read in order to be entertained, and a lot of them simply don't bother.
Reading is hard work. Indeed, compared to math, reading is hard. There are lots of rules, and even more exceptions. The minimal multiplication table has 55 entries you need to know, once you realize that X times Y equals Y times X.
And how many people could come up with that number, without drawing up the table and counting the cells?
The thing is, people have been able to get by without learning more than the basics in math, and many without even knowing that. Liberal arts students can live their whole lives without using math, and are perfectly content to look down their noses at people who study the subject.
But until very recently, there's been no substitute for reading. In order to function, you had to know the first two of the "three R's", and at least a bit of the trivium. (Though not the Terrible Trivium from Norton Juster's delightful book .)
Now, you can be entertained by TV or video feed. You can study a lot of things the same way. You can "read" books on tape (or CD). If you have to type up a document, your computer has a built-in spell check, which will look at a word you typed in, try to guess what word you wanted, and offer a selection of correctly spelled words, one of which might even be the one you wanted.
You also have a grammar check, which will be happy to suggest ways to mangle your writing.
Some folks do seem to find areas where writing in some form or another is essential. Online chats are still mostly written. For now. Some of what's written is even recognizable English.
One of the things I've gone back and forth with Mr. Cramer about is the subject of science. He finds fault with the way one particular branch – evolutionary biology – is taught. It's presented to kids in schools as Revealed Truth, if not Holy Writ. My response is that it's not confined to that particular branch of science. Indeed, all science is taught that way.
The problem here is that very few teachers, especially in the lower grades, really know science. If a student asks how we know people evolved from apes, or how we know matter is made up of atoms, or even how we know the world is round, very few teachers can answer the question. (Try the round world question on a grade school teacher some time. Better yet, try after memorizing the arguments on some flat earth society web site. See how well the teacher deals with the objections to the round earth theory.)
The result of this has been that science is seen as a kind of priesthood where acolytes learn arcane language and truths. Higher math is not a tool, but a secret language.
Not only does this discourage kids from doing real science, "just finding things out", it encourages the quackery of pseudoscience. When science is seen as a priesthood, quacks dress their nonsense up in the trappings of the order, and can rely on this cloak to fool the non-scientist. Since the general public doesn't know science as a set of tools you can bring to bear on a question, but regards it as a priesthood, arguments about science vs. pseudo-science are easily cast as doctrinal differences.
Most people regard doctrinal differences as a matter of opinion, and unless there's a compelling reason to accept one and reject the other, both deserve a fair hearing. Add the use of scientific jargon and the occasional equation to induce a MEGO* response, and people throw up their hands and refuse to form an opinion. "Let me know when it's settled," they say, "Preferably during a station break."
(Running low on time. I may have more thoughts later. Feel free to leave comments.)
* MEGO = My Eyes Glaze Over