Perhaps we have too much STEM education in this country. Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, thinks so. It’s a view he put forth in a July 2012 New York Times column titled “Is algebra necessary?” He has now elaborated on the topic in a new book “The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions.”
His basic argument is that only mathematicians and engineers use advance math regularly, and forcing high-school students and college freshmen to study math is counterproductive.
In the Times column, he writes, “Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower.” He says mandatory algebra contributes to one in four U.S. ninth graders failing to complete high school. Further, he notes, mandatory math college admission requirements deter would-be applicants who might excel in other fields. And finally, even jobs that make use of STEM credentials often require additional on-the-job training in areas such as “machine-tool mathematics” at Toyota.
He acknowledges that quantitative literacy is useful, “But there’s no evidence that being able to prove that (x2 + y2) = (x2 – y2)2 + (2xy)2 leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis. He calls for a “citizen statistics” that would familiarize students with math as it fits into their personal and public lives.
In Slate, the author Dana Goldstein recounts her own experience with math. Intensive tutoring paid for by upper-middle-class parents helped her get a low B in high-school calculus, but she never understood the significance of a derivative.
“For low-income students, math is often an impenetrable barrier to academic success,” she writes. “Algebra II, which includes polynomials and logarithms, and is required by the new Common Core curriculum standards used by 47 states and territories, drives dropouts at both the high school and college levels. The situation is most dire at public colleges, which are the most likely to require abstract algebra as a precondition for a degree in every field, including art and theater.”
She quotes Hacker as telling her, “We are really destroying a tremendous amount of talent—people who could be talented in sports writing or being an emergency medical technician, but can’t even get a community college degree. I regard this math requirement as highly irrational.”
However, when Goldstein showed Hacker’s book to her computer-programmer husband, he had a different take: People don’t use Shakespeare in their jobs, but it’s still important for them to read it.”
Maybe there should be a middle ground. Being forced to complete 50 calculus problems for a homework assignment is probably not useful. Knowing what a derivative signifies is. As Goldstein puts it, “Maybe I would have found abstract math more enjoyable if my teachers had been able to explain it better, perhaps by connecting it somehow to the real world. And if that happened in every school, maybe lots more American kids, even low-income ones, would be able to make the leap from arithmetic to the conceptual mathematics of algebra II and beyond.”