Got Math?

I’ve never been a numbers person. My strength, such as it is, lies in words. My children (that is, “our” children — my wife played an important role in my acquisition of kids), on the other hand, have strong numbers skills. One is an engineer, in fact, who got little to no help from my DNA.-

My intro here relates to the ongoing argument about college curricula. Should there be a core curriculum that requires a certain number of mandatory courses, or should students be free to choose their own path to a degree?

Beyond that lies another question: What skills should students acquire before they apply to college? Also, just how valuable will certain skills be to them both in college and during the rest of their lives?

The one “certain” skill I’d like to address today is mathematics — in particular, algebra. If you’re a parent reading this, think back across your education and life to date and try to recall instances where algebra proved to be a useful skill for you during various situations. In my own case, the last time I encountered algebra was in 10th grade. I’ll never forget my teacher, Miss Marion Puckey.


She was a hardliner. You had better have done your homework! Also, you had better respond with quickness and authority when she asked you a question, or — far more scary — when she told you to go to the blackboard and solve an equation. Anyway, Miss Puckey taught me algebra and I grew (slowly) to appreciate her prison-guard approach to teaching, which helped me survive the SAT and college math.

As for how useful algebra, geometry, and other math, for that matter, have been to me across the span of my many post-high school decades, I think I may have used algebra a couple time to figure out how to expand a recipe or two. Beside those experiences, I probably just ended up writing about it.

I came across an interesting article the other day that sparked some enthusiastic replies from those who responded to my thread about it on the College Confidential discussion forum. The article, which I refer to in my forum post as Debating the Value of Math, is about Andrew Hacker, an outspoken critic of mandatory algebra education, who was asked to defend his contentions at the National Museum of Mathematics.

The article’s introduction sets the stage:

A few years ago, Andrew Hacker, the political scientist, wrote an Op-Ed for the Times titled “Is Algebra Necessary?,” in which he proposed eliminating mandatory high-school math. “Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves,” he wrote. Although some of the article’s readers suspected Hacker of satire, he was as serious as calculus, and has extended his argument in a book called “The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions.” Recently, the National Museum of Mathematics, on East Twenty-sixth Street, invited Hacker to defend his assertions in a public debate with James Tanton, the mathematician at large of the Mathematical Association of America, and an educator and consultant.

It appeared as though they were setting up Hacker for an ambush. If you have strong, controversial opinions and choose to flaunt them in The New York Times, then you should be prepared for “invitations” such as this.

… Hacker outlined his case: mastery of the high-school-math sequence—algebra, geometry, calculus—is unnecessary for most students, and by making math a requirement for graduation and college entrance, the U.S. educational system sets up for failure millions whose talents might lie elsewhere. “Colleges mindlessly require mathematics of everybody, even if you are going to major in poetry, modern dance, or interior design,” he said …

“… mindlessly require mathematics of everybody …” (!)

Fighting words, for sure, especially in the presence of rabid mathematicians.

You can read the rest of Hacker’s “defense,” which has created a major “offense” for many. I’d like to give you a sampling of those who are head-on opposed to dumping math requirements. My source is my CC thread linked to above.

– Dad showed me how to use a hammer. A hammer is a practical tool but difficult to use. People shouldn’t be exposed to such high end tools. My neighbor drives nails with rocks and gets along fine. His house looks like he drives nails with rocks, and the hammer lobby is hot after him, but …

– We’re talking ALGEBRA here, not higher math. What other “inessential” subjects should also be eliminated? Heck, I can readily google info– maybe nix history, science, foreign language, too.


– The problem with this is kids tend to change their minds about what they want to do with the rest of their life. So you never know what they will need or use. You never know when a student might meet a great teacher and fall in love with math.  

– You take algebra in high-school not because you are ever going to use it as a grown-up. You take it so that you understand some fundamental math, or at least what it can do. You don’t take it for its practical value to your life or career, though innumeracy is as harmful as illiteracy to our society …

– Once you start trying to think of what core parts of a basic grade school education you “don’t need,” what core subjects you can “live life without,” it usually goes downhill from there. When you start dismissing the value of academic core learning, you very quickly limit your ability to do any form of advanced work …

–  … I suspect that as a society, we overvalue math because it is so easy to test for and weed people out. Reading and writing and science and critical thinking are all more difficult to evaluate – but for most people they are much more important.  

– Ordinary people use algebra, or at least algebraic thinking, every day. Maybe if more people understood algebra2, we wouldn’t be paying for as many defaulted loans.  

– … I see people everyday who cannot calculate their way out of the most basic life problems. Any analytic skills would be welcome. The idea of imparting less math to young minds is idiotic.

Wayne State just proposed eliminating required math classes in favor of diversity classes. I think that a mind with no math skills dreamed up that idea.  

– You need algebra to figure out how to double recipes or figure out the paint needed for a room. I do think algebra and geometry are basic. Calculus, not so much.  

– Get rid of geometry or shorten it. It is basically waste of time. Without algebra, you can not do physics and chemistry. So, if we get rid of algebra, we better get rid of sciences too.  

– Math is probably the single most effective screening tool. If you can’t get into a selective college because of your weak math score, probably you don’t belong to one.  

– If you were to list the high school subjects in the order that they have been beneficial to you, then I think math comes right after reading and writing. With a good understanding of those three subjects, all college majors are accessible …

– Math absolutely changes how your brain works. So does learning a language. The way we teach math is terrible, though. I didn’t see how it all connected until Calc 2, when we delved into a little bit of physics and I learned that basically every algebraic equation in geometry and high school physics comes from calculus …

And so on …


So … Got math in your life?

How so? Let us know!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.