To Math or Not to Math

Over the weekend, I listened to “Decoding the Math Myth,” a podcast hosted by American Radio Works where Andrew Hacker, retired Queens College professor and political scientist talks about his book The Math Myth and Other Stem Delusions. As someone who struggled in math and who has only used basic arithmetic as an adult, this subject appealed to me.

I especially enjoyed Hacker’s push against high school curriculum that often encourages students, who want to at least be considered by good colleges, to take pre-calculus or calculus, without other options. He argues that classes along the lines of numeracy and citizens statistics could be just as challenging, and, in Hacker’s mind, more fruitful. To a certain extent, I agree. At the outset, mastering statistics seems as if it’s not only difficult but applicable to various fields, but research in particular.

I then listened to the follow-up podcast, “Is Advanced Math Necessary?” Where Standford professor Keith Devlin argues that Hacker has a rudimentary understanding of advanced math and that Hacker does not even know the history of math and how it connects to higher order thinking. While I do t think Devlin’s response is clear in the American Radio Works podcast, his Huffington Post article on the subject seems to be a more organized and clear outline of how Hacker is uninformed on the subject of advanced math and how this lack of expertise led him to misguided views. In explaining the reason and use of the first algebra textbook, Devlin shows how Hacker’s claims actually favor algebra:

The focus was on how to think about problems, and had nothing to do with manipulating symbols. That is algebra. It is exactly the mental toolkit that Hacker says repeatedly is crucially important and should be taught in schools.

Without realizing it, Devlin argues, Hacker actually wants to change how it’s taught in classrooms and not simply so away with it. Devlin largely agrees with Hacker, especially in the idea that high school math, whether it be alegebra, calculus or statistics, needs to be taught in a way that seems practical and  not in such away that seems as if it’s being taught for math’s sake.

I’d like to take Hacker’s point of replacing algebra with classes like numeracy and citizens statistics in a slightly different direction. It would be great to see colleges favor advanced math courses that include not only calculus or statistics but also numeracy because they’re all beneficial for growth in there own ways. In his American Radio Works podcast, Hacker outlines a math class he taught that involved real world problems, which allowed students to see why they were learning that level of math and how it can be used in the world the see around them.

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