When the political scientist Andrew Hacker published The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions earlier this year, he didn’t break the internet. But he certainly stirred up the math establishment in arguing that anything more complicated than arithmetic is useless to most people, that requiring algebra in high school is an obstacle that drives the country’s dropout rates, and that the Common Core’s approach to math, which calls for more complex math like trigonometry, is a mistake.
As a journalist who has made math education her beat for a while now, I have been fascinated by the whole debacle, in part because many of Hacker’s arguments are more than a century old. And I sympathize with the irate mathematicians, because who likes being told their vocation is useless?
So when I found out that James Tanton—an Australian who serves as the Mathematical Association of America’s mathematician at large, and a proponent for Common Core—wanted to debate Hacker last month at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York, I had to watch.
But as I watched, I had a sinking feeling: It was clear that neither of these men had ever had the experience of being told, either directly or indirectly, that math was not for them. And I realized that, by not being told this, they had never felt compelled to steer clear of math and numbers-heavy careers, even if high-school math wasn’t fun for them either.
That’s what happened to me.
Math and I have a checkered past. I convinced myself in the sixth grade that I was awful at it because I wasn’t getting easy As anymore, and spent the rest of my school years fearing and failing it. My math phobia kept me out of the sciences and medicine, and pushed me into the humanities. I got through my initial career avoiding it, which was easy: Those in the media are a notoriously math-hating bunch. But seven years ago, I enrolled in a pre-algebra class at a community college, and eventually wound up retaking all of high-school math through calculus.
By the last class, I had come to not only appreciate math, but to also—maybe—love it. Most importantly, I realized my childhood fear—that I wasn’t capable of understanding abstract math—was unfounded.
And as I went through my community-college courses, I realized something else was a lie. I had actually been using abstract math, like algebra and geometry, all my adult life. So much for the trope that such math was useless outside the classroom; I just couldn’t see past my own bad memories.
Finally, I realized the problem had never been math, but the system, and the prejudices of the people in that system. My school years were filled with so many teachers and counselors and family members who seemed all too happy to let me think math was not for me. Reasons included that I was not a genius, and advanced math is only for geniuses; or that I should stick to writing, because most people are either word people or number people. There was also my gender, and this was a system that assumed—and continues to assume—that girls simply lack the same spatial reasoning as boys, so math is better for boys.
And so, as I watched Hacker take the podium for his opening argument, I was leery but prepared to listen. Alas, he disappointed me quickly.
While I agreed with him that for many, failing a math course can derail them from college, never mind graduation, he lost me when he insisted struggling students shouldn’t have to bother with more abstract math. The teenaged me would have rejoiced outwardly at no longer being forced to deal with functions—but inwardly, it would have been the confirmation of my groundless fears: Sorry, you’re too stupid to even try this.
I contacted him later to ask about this concern, and he wrote me the following:
Alternative classes in quantitative reasoning can be just as rigorous. One of the many myths discussed in my book is that the standard mathematics sequence sharpens quantitative skills. Abstract algebraic and geometric reasoning don’t help you untangle the federal budget or a corporate report.
Setting aside loftier aspirations of balancing the federal budget, or steering a corporation’s finances, it wasn’t until Algebra II that I was taught the equation for compound interest. Understanding how exponential growth works has helped me decide on everything from which credit card to choose to realizing a variable-rate mortgage is a terrible idea. I have watched friends lose their homes to such mortgages, and in too many cases, it was the math that intimidated them. But as long as Hacker’s alternate courses tackle such helpful equations, and explain the concept of exponential growth, I’m on board. How they will do this without embracing more complex algebra is a better question.
He lost me again when he discussed the gender gap. I appreciated his acknowledgement that while girls tend to do well in the classroom, they lag behind boys in the math sections of standardized exams like the SAT, and that this lag can prevent them from getting into top universities or being named as merit scholars. But that’s where his argument ended, leading me to wonder whether he truly believes girls’ test performance should be enough to discourage them from continuing with abstract math, or if he was just being provocative.
When I asked Hacker about this, he made it clear he was criticizing the tests, not the girls’ ability: “Standardized tests like SAT, ACT, and now the Common Core,” he said, “fail to show the true mathematical talents of girls and young women.”
I cannot argue with him there, but surely the simpler solution is to stop relying so much on such tests? Again, isn’t the problem the system, not the math?
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Girls don’t need any more reasons to shun advanced math. Neither does anyone, for that matter. Hacker’s solution to repackage math and strip it of its more abstract elements, whether useful or not, will do little to ease this country’s belief in the myth that math is for geniuses. It won’t make math and STEM less elitist.
And this elitism puts guys like Tanton on the hook. I believe Tanton when he says he shuns the genius myth and says he wants to bring the joy of math to everyone. I appreciate that he is working on ways to make it, as he put it to me when I contacted him later, less about “getting through a heavy curriculum and passing high-stakes tests,” and less like a boot camp.
The problem is there are too many others in the math establishment who think sink or swim is the best approach, particularly at the college level. Worse, they believe, covertly and overtly, that those who understand math look a certain way—male, white, or Asian, from a certain social class. And if an aspiring mathematician does not fit that mold, he or she had better be a genius or they’re not worth the waste of graph paper.
And that is why, for all their implementation issues, the Common Core standards should be applauded, because they say to students: I expect more. I believe you can do this. You are at least worthy of trying.
Again, I know Tanton, as a Common Core supporter, knows this, though his take, while realistic, is depressing: “For those that encourage and practice those awful biases you describe—I really don't think they are going to go away.”
Probably not, but that is why it is vital for Tanton and his like-minded colleagues to be even more forceful in calling them out, and to resist circling the wagons when a provocateur like Hacker pokes his head in their mathematical midst.
So, as a math-phobe-turned-math-phile, I say this to Hacker: I appreciate you for stirring things up, but I’m glad I took on the standard courses, even if I failed. And yes, failing geometry and having to retake it meant I never got into UCLA. But I did well elsewhere. And yes, I was lucky.
And to Tanton and the math establishment: Take even more time to figure out why people may be struggling, work harder to squash the harmful stereotypes about who can and can’t do math, even if there will always be holdouts, and keep reforming this broken system where far too often, the only options are sink or swim. Again, I was just lucky I was able to swim.
But as a member of the cynical media, I fear this debate will just rage for another 100 years. At least I’ll have something to write about for quite a while.