Noted social scientist, Andrew Hacker, wrote a provocative opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday arguing that we relax mathematics requirements for higher education. Here are some excerpts from his piece:
New York Times: A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.
…There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)
…The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.
The expected reaction from some of my colleagues was understandably negative. After all, we live in a world that is becoming more complex requiring more mathematical skills not less. Mathematics is as essential to one’s education as reading. In the past, I too would have whole heartedly agreed. However, over the past few years I have started think otherwise. Just to clarify, Hacker does not (nor I) believe that critical thinking is unimportant. He argues forcefully that all citizens should have a fundamental grounding in the concepts of arithmetic, statistics and quantitative reasoning. I have even posted before (see here) that I thought mathematics should be part of the accepted canon of what an educated citizen should know and I’m not backing away from that belief. Hacker thinks we should be taught a “citizen’s statistics” course. My suggested course was: “Science and mathematics survival tools for the modern world.” The question is whether or not we should expect all students to master the abstract reasoning skills necessary for algebra.
I’ll probably catch a lot of flack for saying this but from my professional and personal experience, I believe that there is a significant fraction of the population that is either unable or unwilling to think abstractly. I also don’t think we can separate lack of desire from lack of ability. The willingness to learn something may be just as “innate” as the ability to do something. I think everyone can agree that on the abstract thinking scale almost everyone can learn to add and subtract but only a select few can understand cohomology theory. In our current system, we put high school algebra as the minimum threshold, but is this a reasonable place to draw the line? What we need to know is the distribution of people’s maximum capacity for abstract thinking. The current model requires that the distribution be almost zero left of algebra with a fat tail on the right. But what if the actual distribution is broad with a peak somewhere near calculus? In this case, there would be a large fraction of the population to the left of algebra. This is pure speculation but there could even be a neurophysiological basis to abstract thinking in terms of the fraction of neural connections within higher cortical areas versus connections between cortical and sensory areas. There could be a trade-off between abstract thinking and sensory processing. This need not even be purely genetic. As I posted before, not all the neural connections can be set by the genome so most are either random or arise through plasticity.
To me, the most important issue that Hacker brings up is not whether or not we should make everyone learn algebra but what should we do about the people who don’t and as a result are denied the opportunity to attend college and secure a financially stable life. Should we devote our resources to try to teach it to them better or should we develop alternative ways for these people to be productive in our society? I really think we should re-evaluate the goal that everyone goes to college. In fact, given the exorbitant cost and the rise of online education, the trend away from traditional college may have already begun. We should put more emphasis on apprenticeship programs and community colleges. Given the rapid rate of change in the job market, education and training should be thought of as a continual process instead of the current model of four years and out. I do believe that a functional democracy requires an educated citizenry. However, college attendance has been steadily increasing the past few decades but one would be hard pressed to argue that democracy has concomitantly improved. A new model may be in order.