The Real Math Myth: That we don’t need it

FILE - In this May 15, 2012 file photo, Ritter Elementary School elementary students practice their math skills in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Throughout my entire high school education, I cannot remember a time when the solution to teaching a complex subject was to stop requiring that students learn it. However, that is exactly the solution that critics of high school mathematics curricula have proposed regarding Algebra II, Geometry and Calculus (among other subjects). One of the most vocal of these critics has been Andrew Hacker, a political science professor at the City University of New York, who recently published a book on the subject titled "The Math Myth and Other Stem Delusions." In this book, Hacker calls for schools to stop requiring these complex math courses in favor of number and statistic-based classes that he argues are more practical for everyday life.

Hacker has summarized his reasoning for an end to Algebra II and Calculus requirements in a New York Times op-ed. In it, he argues for the teaching of classes like his Numeracy 101, which is essentially a statistics and arithmetic class. His logic is that higher math classes such as Algebra, Geometry and Calculus serve at worst as an obstruction for those who find them difficult, and at best as a token of impractical knowledge for those who do understand them. According to Hacker, these branches of mathematics are only useful in a limited number of fields that are directly related to mathematics. In fact, he stated in a New York Times interview that even computer scientists do not need these fields of math, and that only about five percent of jobs actually require them. Not only does Hacker provide little factual basis for this claim, but most of his reasoning is, quite simply, false.

On a basic level, Geometry, Algebra and Calculus have easily found their way into our everyday lives. Algebra provides people with a method to solve for unknowns, whether they be test problems or real life uncertainties that might not be found on an exam at all. Geometry is essential for any kind of spatial application; directions and estimations of distances are two excellent cases. A more personal example occurred to me when a Vietnam War veteran described to my high school class how his use of trigonometry to fire artillery was the difference between life and death. Even calculus has many useful applications in every day life. To understand a derivative is to understand any rate of change in an instant. And contrary to the beliefs of Andrew Hacker, while it may take relatively little comprehension of higher level mathematics to operate a computer program, computer scientists can only write those programs if they understand the complex algorithms upon which they are based. This is a type of mathematics that Numeracy 101 cannot teach. 

However, the influence of mathematics has a much wider reach. Even theorems and methods that might not be used on a daily trip to the grocery store enhance a person’s logical and problem-solving skills. It does not matter if the problem is not strictly computational; proper mathematical instruction can train people to analyze outcomes and use deduction skills in an organized, step-by-step method. Proofs are especially useful tools, and yet they are often dismissed as one of the most impractical subjects. But a proof is essentially just a complete understanding of how and why an accepted fact is the way it is. Even if the proof is not for the Pythagorean Theorem, a person who comprehends proofs can analyze the truth of any statement and similarly find the fallacies in any set of information.

Hacker argues that his Numeracy 101 course is teaching people all they need to know to be competent public citizens, but in reality, this “practical” computational approach only yields compliant citizens, who maybe have a basic knowledge of income distribution and population trends but no powers of deduction. The mere thinking skills that can be obtained from higher level maths are unparalleled. Yes, learning these subjects is difficult, and most schools as of now expect students to learn only algebra and geometry, not calculus, but rescinding these requirements will only ignore and perpetuate the problem.

To be fair, the present mathematics curriculum is not perfect. Many students do struggle with Algebra, Geometry and Calculus, but this is largely due to cultural influences. American students have always been taught to fear math, and this does give the subject the image of an obstacle that must be overcome. Similarly, students do generally lack an understanding of the relevance of mathematical topics in real-world application. This, however, is not because the relevance does not exist, but because it is not properly addressed by educators. The focus must shift away from what we are teaching and over to how we are teaching it. Only then can mathematics make students better thinkers, problem-solvers and citizens.


Alex Oliveira is a staff writer for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.