July 29, 2012
In a desperate panic, Professor Emeritus Andrew Hacker confronts mandatory math education, sending this poison pill to the New York Times:
Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.
Is this really the best intermural discourse that our elites can offer? Why does this person even believe in mandatory education? What kind of absolute hypocrisy is that? Mandatory history prevents us from being a truly moral society, but you don’t see me complaining about it to the editor, do you?
Andrew, I’ll tell you something about math. Math is wonderful, easy, and infinitely useful. I don’t believe you for a second when you say that someone “can’t” do it. We all do it every hour of every day, and if our understanding doesn’t extend to those symbols we copy down from the blackboard, that is perfectly normal! The symbols suck! They were invented by obsessive-compulsive introverts with pieces of paper – that’s what mathematicians were in those days! Today, computers make it all much easier (obsessive compulsion, introversion, …) and my practiced mathematical ability earns me a comfortable salary, just like people said it would. Every child should have a similar understanding before we can expect them to make rational decisions, even by your soggy social definition of “reason.”
If you’re not convinced, I guess that’s about all I can say right now, and you’re just going to have to believe me. In my personal experience, learning math only became easy when I started ignoring the various procedures and techniques that fill in for real understanding, and addressing each topic by thinking carefully and deeply about the problem domain. With arithmetic, I’m lucky because it happened a very long time ago. I could derive and integrate equations by the 11th grade, but I didn’t actually realize what integration was until about halfway through college, and of course that was an extracurricular event. I’ve forgotten many of the required algorithms (not necessarily their C equivalents), but because, for example, I haven’t forgotten what an integral is, I can recall and relearn any of those methods in seconds, given Internet.
Think about math more, learn your multiplication tables in case Google is unavailable, and if you’re still having a lot of difficulty go find a teacher who makes sense, not a confused and bitter old man like Andrew Hacker! I’ll help you out personally if I have time, but there will be hard work involved, so be warned.