Does mathematics have a place in higher education?
A recent New York Times Opinion piece (hat tip Wei Ho), Is Algebra Necessary?, argues for the abolishment of algebra as a requirement for college. It was written by Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York. His concluding argument:
I’ve observed a host of high school and college classes, from Michigan to Mississippi, and have been impressed by conscientious teaching and dutiful students. I’ll grant that with an outpouring of resources, we could reclaim many dropouts and help them get through quadratic equations. But that would misuse teaching talent and student effort. It would be far better to reduce, not expand, the mathematics we ask young people to imbibe. (That said, I do not advocate vocational tracks for students considered, almost always unfairly, as less studious.)
Yes, 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. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.
Most thought that a bachelor’s degree was the ticket to a well-paid job, and that the heavy student loans were worth it and manageable. And many thought that majors such as social science, education, criminal justice or humanities would still get them jobs. They didn’t realize that the jobs that could be obtained with such credentials were the nice-to-have but nonessential positions of the boom years that would disappear when times got tough and businesses slashed costs.
Some of those recent graduates probably didn’t want to do, or were intellectually incapable of doing, the hard work required to major in science and engineering. After all, afternoon labs cut into athletic pursuits and social time. Yet that’s where the jobs are now. Many U.S.-based companies are moving their research-and-development operations offshore because of the lack of scientists and engineers in this country, either native or foreign-born.
For 34- to 49-year-olds, student debt has leaped 40 percent in the past three years, more than for any other age group. Many of those debtors were unemployed and succumbed to for-profit school ads that promised high-paying jobs for graduates. But those jobs seldom materialized, while the student debt remained.
Moreover, many college graduates are ill-prepared for almost any job. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts examined the abilities of U.S. college graduates in three areas: analyzing news stories, understanding documents and possessing the math proficiency to handle tasks such as balancing a checkbook or tipping in a restaurant.
The first article is written by a professor, so it might not be surprising that, as he sees more and more students coming through, he feels their pain and wants their experience to not be excruciating. The easiest way to do that is to remove the stumbling block requirement of math. He also seems to think of higher education as something everyone is entitled to, which I infer based on how he dismisses vocational training.
The second article is written by a financial analyst, an economist, so we might not be surprised that he strictly sees college as a purely commoditized investment in future income, and wants it to be a good one. The easiest way to do that is to have way fewer students go through college to begin with, since having dumb or bad students get into debt but not learn anything and then not get a job afterwards doesn’t actually make sense.
And where the first author acts like math is only needed for a tiny minority of college students, the second author basically dismisses non-math oriented subjects as frivolous and leading to a life of joblessness and debt. These are vastly different viewpoints. I’m thinking of inviting them both to dinner to discuss.
By the way, I think that last line, where Hacker wonders what the pain of math-as-huge-boulder achieves, is more or less answered by Shilling. The goal of having math requirements is to have students be mathematically literate, which is to say know how to do everyday things like balancing checkbooks and reading credit card interest rate agreements. The fact that we aren’t achieving this goal is important, but the goal is pretty clear. In other words, I think my dinner party would be fruitful as well as entertaining.
If there’s one thing these two agree on, it’s that students are having an awful lot of trouble doing basic math. This makes me wonder a few things.
First, why is algebra such a stumbling block? Is it that the students are really that bad, or is the approach to teaching it bad? I suspect what’s really going on is that the students taking it have mostly not been adequately taught the pre-requisites. That means we need more remedial college math.
I honestly feel like this is the perfect place for online learning. Instead of charging students enormous fees while they get taught high-school courses they should already know, and instead of removing basic literacy requirements altogether, ask them to complete some free online math courses at home or in their public library, to get them ready for college. The great thing about computers is that they can figure out the level of the user, and they never get impatient.
Next, should algebra be replaced by a Reckoning 101 course? Where, instead of manipulating formulas, we teach students to figure out tips and analyze news stories and understand basic statistical statements? I’m sure this has been tried, and I’m sure it’s easy to do badly or to water down entirely. Please tell me what you know. Specifically, are students better at snarky polling questions if they’ve taken these classes than if they’ve taken algebra?
Finally, I’d say this (and I’m stealing this from my friend Kiri, a principal of a high school for girls in math and science): nobody ever brags about not knowing how to read, but people brag all the time about not knowing how to do math. There’s nothing to be proud of in that, and it’s happening to a large degree because of our culture, not intelligence.
So no, let’s not remove mathematical literacy as a requirement for college graduates, but let’s think about what we can do to make the path reasonable and relevant while staying rigorous. And yes, there are probably too many students going to college because it’s now a cultural assumption rather than a thought-out decision, and this lands young people in debt up to their eyeballs and jobless, which sucks (here’s something that may help: forcing for-profit institutions to be honest in advertising future jobs promises and high interest debt).
Something just occurred to me. Namely, it’s especially ironic that the most mathematically illiterate and vulnerable students are being asked to sign loan contracts that they, almost by construction, don’t understand. How do we address this? Food for thought and for another post.