From order of operations (PEMDAS, anyone?) to calculus, many people can recall struggling with math at some point during their school years. But through hard work, good teachers, lots of homework, extra tutoring, or (perhaps) sheer luck, many of these same people manage to weather those rough math patches.
Many, but not all.
If advanced math is such a thorn in the side of student learning, why do we subject American students to this ordeal? That’s the question posed by Andrew Hacker in a recent New York Times opinion piece.
Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, opines about the necessity and relevance of higher level mathematics such as algebra, calculus, and trigonometry. Hacker’s thoughts are worth reading in full, and his points include the following:
- “What is needed is not textbook formulas but greater understanding of where various numbers come from, and what they actually convey.”
- Too often, argues Hacker, math “is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.” His examples? “Certification programs for veterinary technicians require algebra, although none of the graduates I’ve met have ever used it in diagnosing or treating their patients. Medical schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins demand calculus of all their applicants, even if it doesn’t figure in the clinical curriculum, let alone in subsequent practice.”
- Math teachers “at every level could create exciting courses in what I call ‘citizen statistics’ … [which] would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.”
The “toll mathematics takes begins early,” contends Hacker, and he goes on to cite numerous (disheartening) statistics about this nation’s high school failure and drop-out rates. “Yes,” he says, “young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions.”
Is Hacker throwing the baby out with the bath water? Or is this the provocative and innovative kind of thinking that the U.S. education system is in dire need of? Alas, there are no simple answers. Read the article (and the insightful comments following) and let us know what you think. And if you’re one of those people who loves math (we know you’re out there!), you may be interested in some uniforms for yourself and fellow mathletes.