Friday, July 1, 2016

The Math Myth: Andrew Hacker and the Poisoning of Meritocracy by Idiocy

Andrew Hacker is a national treasure.

He focuses on the sort of injustices and dysfunction which shape and misshape American life and if we only took his advice, life for a huge proportion of Americans would be far better, and  the success of American industry, professions and culture would be several orders of magnitude greater.

But, alas, he is now 87 years old, so nobody's listening and nothing he says matters any more. As Bill Clinton once observed, the great thing about not being President (until his wife became a candidate) is he could say anything he believed without having to parse his phrases to not offend; the trouble is, nobody listened any more.

Hacker has written about income inequality, the waste of female talent and American racial divides and about how colleges have gone off the rail and failed their students and their country.

 More recently, he has written about the ways the teaching and, more importantly, the testing of mathematics has injured large numbers of worthy individuals and injured this enterprise we call the United States of America.

Essentially, what Hacker is saying is obvious to anyone who has trudged through the American education industry, especially at the "elite" levels:  Most of what we teach as "math" is ridiculous, irrelevant and harmful to students and society. It is as if we decided everyone should learn to swim, but instead of simply asking students to demonstrate this ability by plunging in and swimming twenty five yards, we require everyone to do butterfly, backstroke, breast stroke and freestyle in times which would make Mark Spitz proud. 

This insipid approach has wrecked the essential idea of "meritocracy" in America.

Reading "The Math Myth"  brought back floods of memories of outrage.  Whenever I remember this stuff, I tell myself, sure this is all stupid and unjust but it's not like the people I'm talking about and their inane beliefs are like the guards at Auschwitz, assigning people to either the work squads or the gas chambers--the math Nazis are not evil, simply foolish.

Just a few snippets of memory:  When my son was struggling with calculus as a freshman in college, his dreams of going to medical school looked imperiled and I spoke with a Dean at Vanderbilt about allowing him to take a less high powered calculus course and the dean told me high level calculus was required for pre meds because "math is the basis of science, the language of science."  Here is this dean, a sociologist telling me, a physician what I knew was bunk--the last time I used calculus was on my calculus final exam. Lucky for my son, he persisted and though he never mastered calculus, he got into a fine medical school and became a vascular surgeon.

Listening to a high power Washington lawyer talk to the President of the Board of Trustees of Sidwell Friends School, a private school in Washington, D.C., I was floored to hear him say, "Well, of course, the problem at Boston Latin"--where the lawyer had gone to school--"was they eliminated the calculus requirement and standards went straight downhill from there." And the Sidwell man smiled knowingly, nodded in agreement.  

I've heard colleagues claim calculus is an important requirement for medical school--they were good at it--and I've asked them to cite a single instance when calculus was necessary or even helpful to them in their medical careers and none could, except to say that well in some articles in the medical literature the concept of the area under the curve came up. But of course, you can learn that concept in 30 seconds--you don't need to be solving quadratic equations.

When I was in college, I put off taking calculus until I was a senior and I went to see the Dean who might wave that requirement for me--it was required for my major (biology) and I pointed out I had already taking all the courses for which calculus was a prerequisite, somehow slipping through the net which was designed to bar students not having calculus to take those courses, and I had got mostly A's in all those courses. "Well," he murmured, you'll need calculus in some of your more advanced science courses.  But, of course, I had only two science courses left to take and neither histology  nor comparative anatomy had even a remote math content.  The Dean, who was also the Dean of Admissions, reached in his file and pulled up my folder, from when I had applied to the college from high school and scanning over it, he found my SAT scores in math and he yelped: "How did you ever get in here?"

"I don't really know, " I said. "But you know, I haven't done all that badly."

Actually, I had done better than 97% of all the students at the college, and majored in science, without taking much math, which was, as we were told, the basis for science.  That did not give him pause to wonder about his own ideas of how to judge applicants or predict success or to reconsider the measurements he was using.  "Moneyball" had not yet been written and he was still judging applicants by the test which Michael Lewis might call, "Looking good in jeans."

Hacker does not think math is irrelevant. This is not sour grapes from a man who is mathematically challenged.  He is a graduate of Amherst, Oxford and Princeton and uses numbers for much of his scholarly work. What he is talking about has been called "numeracy" or practical math.  

A builder who made a fortune building shopping malls once told me, "I was never much of a student. Couldn't graduate high school because I couldn't pass the state math tests. But I could always add and subtract. That's all I really needed." The man amassed a fortune several times greater than most of the academics who spurned him, and numbers were a big part of what he did--estimates of cost and profit.

Arthrimetic is very useful and some simple algebra is very handy.  Personally, I struggled with alegebra as a 12 year old but when I turned 13, it seemed obvious and very simple. Algebra teachers often nod knowingly when I mention this and say, "Yes, some kids just need another year for their neurons to mature."  And geometry was the one course I actually loved. Proofs were such fun and so satisfying. But that doesn't mean I'd require every student to do high level algebra or geometry to graduate high school. A requirement ought to reflect what is essential, a basic competency.  Not every swimmer has to be Mark Spitz.

As we have required polynomial equations and imaginary numbers to be a test for any kid who wants to call himself a high school graduate, as we have set the bar for admissions to elite colleges by asking absurdly inappropriate questions on the SAT exams, we have not just done an injustice to individuals, we have lost valuable talent for our nation.

I have a nephew who got calculus and all sorts of math quite easily. He was a bit of a wild man in high school, but clearly quite bright and eventually, after he came to terms with his own behavioral problems, he met a girl who could give the average Hollywood starlet fits in a beauty contest, and he decided he'd better be able to show her he had a promising future and he became an accountant. Not just an accountant but he passed all 5 parts of the CPA exam on the first try, a pretty impressive,  although not unprecedented,  feat. He now works for one of the big three accounting firms.  He can do higher math and his math skills, at least some of his math skills may be relevant to his career. He is Mark Spitz in the accounting waters. 

But not every student at his college should have had to show they could do math the way he can. There are lots of talents and lots of different sorts of intelligence in the world. 

By requiring higher math of everyone, we have been simply foolish. We would not require every recruit for the football team to run 100 yards in under 10 seconds--we would lose the vital offensive and defensive linemen you need for a successful team. But we make that mistake in selecting our team for the freshman class at Harvard and Amherst. 

When we see the seething mass of resentment among the crowds at a Donald Trump rally, we see the results of our longstanding and widespread use of absurd requirements which have denied a basic credential, a high school diploma to millions. These people know they are not stupid, but they've been labeled that way through a rigged, corrupt and essentially idiotic system, which may not be evil but which has played a huge role in engendering a sense of distrust and outrage among all those injured by it.

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