Inside THE MATH MYTH: Excerpts from its Chapters
THE “M” IN STEM
This century finds America in a struggle to preserve its pride and prestige. Other countries are already matching us in ability, efficiency, and vigor. The solution: make everyone study more mathematics. Where the missile race tallied nuclear warheads, now the countdown is STEM diplomas.
A HARSH AND SENSELESS HURDLE
It is unrealistic to expect that all the talents we want and need will always be in tandem with mathematics. In embracing STEM, we should wonder whether we are constricting our conception of excellence.
WILL PLUMBERS NEED POLYNOMIALS?
In 2014, fully 19.5 million Americans had scientific or engineering degrees, but only 5.4 million of them had jobs in STEM fields. The ratios were even worse for computer science and mathematics graduates. Despite all these figures, claims of a “skills shortage” persist.
DOES YOUR DERMATOLOGIST USE CALCULUS?
“For entry to medical school, I was required to take calculus. I certainly never use it in patient care. Calculus was a rite of passage, a senseless weeding out process.” (an internal medicine physician) “I don’t really use much of any math, except for calculating the tip at lunch.” (a software designer)
The National Merit Scholarships refuse to release the gender distribution of their winners. But an independent analysis found that while girls make up 53 percent of those taking the NMS test, only 47 percent of their gender get into the tier which determines awards.
DOES MATHEMATICS ENHANCE OUR MINDS?
“Algebra strengthens the mind, and enables it to better master studies of a different nature.” (August Comte) “I know people who can work out most of Fermat’s Last Theorem, but keep marrying the wrong women.” (Richard Cohen)
They have been depicted as “the mathematics power elite,” a coterie of scholars who decree how a whole realm of knowledge will be defined, taught, and studied at every level. Yet these mandarins have been conspicuously unsuccessful in attracting young people to their discipline.
THE COMMON CORE: ONE SIZE FOR ALL
The Common Core is no longer a pilot project. Its so-called standards are well in place. Under its syllabus, both security guards and Cal Tech aspirants will face tests on Pascal’s Triangle and Pythagorean Triples. A Florida legislator views it as “a recipe for a higher dropout rate.”
DISCIPLINE VERSUS DISCOVERY
Those on the Discipline side are suspicious of lessons that pupils might actually enjoy. For them, no pain, no gain, applies as to mental strain as well as muscular exertion. Discovery adherents like to see mathematics classrooms as communities of learners rather than arenas of competitors.
TEACHING, TRACKING, TESTING
To discover that one’s country ranks thirty-second in mathematics is hardly cheering for a nation preoccupied with winning. Even so, we may wonder how many American teenagers and parents are willing to invest more of themselves in azimuths and asymptotes.
HOW NOT TO TREAT STATISTICS
The Carnegie Fund’s alternative for struggling students was to fund an esoteric statistics course, designed by a panel of professors. Of the 1,817 students in the project, 897 finished with Ds or Fs or dropped during the semester.
I visited my college’s Department of Mathematics with a proposal. It was to teach an experimental section, with its focus on quantitative reasoning. I said that whilemost of my assignments would need only arithmetic, they would call for insight, imagination, and analytical rigor.