July 30, 2012

What Is Math For? Well, What Is Public Education For?

Justin Katz

For a quick diversion from the immediately relevant tasks of quantifying legislator votes and charting the ebbs and flows of Rhode Island civilization, I can't resist commenting on Andrew Hacker's New York Times question, "Is Algebra Necessary?":

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

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.)

My experience was somewhat like that of Glenn Reynolds: I was good at math but didn't become a fan until I began putting it into practice. That practice rolled out in many different phases: Music, for one, is built on mathematical concepts; analyzing public policy as a hobby in my mid-20s lent a new relevance to calculations and proofs; but the visceral love of math only came when all of my preferred career paths came to a dead end of unemployment.

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Justin, you might want to look into the Jesuit Order's prescription for education, i.e. "The Ratio Studiorum." How's about a comment or two on it. Its spirit is what's missing in education, not polynomials.

Every day I thank the Jesuits who gave me the choice of college math or Ancient Greek. I chose Greek and today, after more than 50 years have passed I can still read the language, conjugate a few Greek verbs and decline masculine, feminine and neuter nouns. I gained an appreciation for Greek Drama, playwrites, and Ancient Athenian and Spartan cultures. Every now and then I come across a new word, recognize its etymological origin as Greek and squeeze out the meaning. Never could have accomplished any of it with math. When it behooved me, I learned basic algebra and solid geometry and made a decent living centered around the computer. Programming languages are just that, languages. I'm with Andrew Hacker 100%.

I have a 7 year old grandaughter who has spent about half of her life in China. She speaks fluent Spanish, English and now Mandarin. I don't think Harvard will fret about her inability to handle quadratic equations.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at July 31, 2012 11:43 PM

I wonder if it is meaningful that idiot savants occur only in music and math. I also wonder how many adults, outside of the sciences, have reason to reflect on the calculus. I have known people, outside the sciences, who read mathematics books for pleasure. If "better colleges" did not require it, I doubt there would be much interest in it. There was a time when it was a pathway to success. Both Jefferson and Washington made large sums as surveyors. I think that is more likely to include trigonometric functions.

Today I listened to a discussion of this article on NPR. A women from Virginia called in to complain that geometry appeared on her LSAT, 30 years ago. While this may be unrelated to "professional aptitude", in truth, she was not being asked to comment on Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Perhaps the LSAT hopes to measure "well roundedness".

Rare as it is that I agree with OTL, I suspect that a study of Greek (he will be saddened to hear that fifth form Greek has been dropped at most Prep schools) might better prepare your average citizen for life than advanced mathematics. A knowledge of Greek plays and mythology would advise you that there are few, really new, problems. It would also provide insightful analogies beyond Icarus (OTL, "Iκαρος" ?). I sign many web posts as Tisiphone. Very few "get it".

For insight on how a knowledge of history can add to comedic value, I commend the novels of Bill Buckley's son, Christopher Buckley.

Like Justin, I have found a knowledge of geometry to be frequently useful. Algebra,in a recognizable form,rarely. Although, it may aid in thinking. "Business Statistics", taught by Capt. Thorne who often featured characters such as "W.T. Door" in his exams, has proved useful. Of courses taken in public school, I think "mechanical drawing" has proved the most useful. However, I do not draw gear trains for pleasure. Being more familiar with straight edges and French curves, I do not know if CAD/CAM has replaced it. With that, I will take "French leave".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at August 1, 2012 1:26 AM
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