Math Problems

The Myth Math: And other STEM Delusions by Andrew Hacker
2016 The New Press

“Is Algebra Necessary?” asked the headline of a New York Times op-ed written by Andrew Hacker, a political scientist. His negative reply produced a minor storm of angry comments and counterarguments from almost everybody. Now he’s back with the same arguments in book length.

Note that my late father had a M.Sc. in Mathematics, he was a college mathematics professor (teaching calculus, linear algebra and perhaps any remedial math classes the college offered), I did well enough in high school and college math and I am currently in university doing a Computer Science degree. So you expect me to join his many angry critics. Yet, I do not think I can.

There is a lot to agree with Hacker. The current American fad of requiring every high school student to take advanced math classes is a mistake, another pointless ‘fix’ that does not fix anything, but does break a lot of other things. The job market for STEM majors is far graver than typically pictured, thanks to (i) industries trying to drive down wages, (ii) wishful thinking and (iii) a job market for non-STEM majors that even more dire. His description of professional mathematicians working on the mathematics curriculum reminds me of professional writers giving grammar advice; just because a person can creating new theorems or short stories, does mean necessarily mean they are good at developing a curriculum or describing grammar. They have different skill sets, but the difference is often lost on the public and the professionals themselves.

Still, it feels like it goes too far. Couldn’t this all be resolved with some minor tracking? The school system I went to had too required streams of math starting in Grade 9, with an advanced and basic streams (there was also a talented and gifted program, and probably remedial classes as well). The advanced stream leads to the post-secondary sequences of calculus and linear algebra, while the basic stream was more like a ‘quantitative reasoning’ class that Hacker advocates. I believe there were options to ‘upgrade’ during the summer. Likewise, I think there should be similarly free adult education class for those who have already graduated high school. I think these ‘upgrading options’ should go a long way to ease concerns about the fairness of tracking.