"The Math Myth" by Andrew Hacker

They say it is a good idea to read things that challenge one's cherished beliefs or values, both to expand one's mind and to test one's beliefs. But, more often than not, this is uncomfortable to do. (And that's why the normal tendency is to avoid doing it.) As in reading The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions, by Andrew Hacker. Professor Hacker has a number of arguments against mathematics education in high school and college, not the least of which is that the requirement for taking algebra, let alone classes such as trigonometry or calculus, forces students who have no desire to enter technical fields to endure a painful winnowing as they pursue their education. The acronym "STEM" stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and is used in a number of education policy approaches aimed at improving what students know in these subjects, with the objective of improving the competitiveness of the U.S.

As I recall, I was taught the oft-maligned "New Math" in my elementary school. I had no trouble with it, so neither did my parents, because I didn't need to ask them for help with my homework. (Unlike the father in the movie, Incredibles 2, who struggles to help his son with his "new math" homework and exclaims, "I don't know that way! Why would they change Math? Math is Math! MATH IS MATH!")

By seventh grade I was being pulled aside to do more challenging math assignments than the rest of my class was doing. By the time of high school graduation I had taken two years of algebra,  as well as geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, with high scores on standardized tests. I pursued chemistry as a college undergraduate and took calculus and differential equations. I pursued biochemistry in graduate school before moving into a fledgling PhD program in biostatistics and computer modeling. There I continued with coursework in theoretical and applied statistics, operations research, signals and systems analysis, complex systems, and numerical analysis, among others. In my dissertation research I had to apply what I knew about differential equations and numerical analysis to hypotheses in the biochemistry of vision. My first job out of graduate school was in biostatistics for pharmaceutical research.

I have always valued my mathematics education. It was very much aligned to applied mathematics and not theoretical mathematics. I am matho-philic, not matho-phobic, so it is a real challenge for me to put myself in the shoes of those for whom math does not come as easy.

Then along comes Andrew Hacker, with The Math Myth. One by one, Hacker tackles the assumptions that guide everything surrounding math education. As I read this book, I often felt like the subject of Edvard Munch's "The Scream", because I resist his arguments even as I have to grudgingly admit he may be right. Allowing one's beliefs and values to be challenged by reading a book like this is no easy task, especially for someone for whom mathematics and science has dominated their education and career.

I won't attempt to summarize Hacker's arguments. (It would be interesting to read a counterpoint.) But I will touch on one argument, the question of taking coursework that will not likely have practical value for a student. I bristle at this, especially when someone I know tries to tell me that because a knowledge of history has no value in the workplace, history education is a waste. On the other hand, I have been known to argue with one of my friends that there is little or no value in taking classes in Latin. And I do not understand those who put the so-called "classical" education on a pedestal.

What should students be required to learn, and when? This is a really tough question. I could ask how physical education ("P.E." we used to call it) prepared me for supporting myself and my family when I finished school. I could easily grumble over my grades in P.E., grades that were not impressive because I didn't have the athletic "aptitude" that others did. But if I fall back on that argument, was it fair to my fellow students who didn't share my mathematics aptitude for them to be compared against me?

There are no easy answers to many questions in education policy. It may not be comfortable to admit that, but it is a good thing that people like Andrew Hacker challenge our thinking.