In his new book, The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions, Andrew Hacker, a political scientist and professor at Queens College, challenges the widely-held belief that more courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is the panacea for the America’s broken educational system that is lagging behind many other developed countries. Hacker is not drinking the STEM Kool-Aid; he believes that too much emphasis is being placed on math: “[We’re] told that if our nation is to stay competitive, on a given morning all four million or our fifteen-year-olds will be studying azimuths and asymptotes. Then to graduate from high school, they will face tests on radical notations and elliptical equations. All candidates for bachelor’s degrees will face similar hurdles. Mathematics, we are told, will armor our workforce in a merciless world. Its skills, we hear, are foundational to innovation and a lever in the international arena.” But Hacker believes that the facts don’t support the push for STEM; therefore he believes that endeavor is simply a widely-held delusion: “Among our era’s delusions are the powers ascribed to mathematics, spurred by a desperate faith in skills abbreviated by the STEM acronym. Together, they have animated a major mythology of our time. Like all maths, they start with a modicum of truth and can be beguiling on first reading.”
Hacker asks readers to take a look at the problem that so many students are facing — and why math is not the solution. Hacker is not on a crusade against math; he believes that mastering arithmetic and basic algebra is essential and understanding how mathematics works and impacts the world is important. But the more critical question is: how much math do we really need? or asked another way, how much math is too much?
Consider some of the points that Hacker sets forth:
1. Most high school students in America must take geometry, trigonometry, two years of algebra, and calculus. These requirements have negative consequences. Research shows that struggling with math is the number one academic reason that students do not finish high school (1 in 5 students do not finish high school). Moreover, this is the same reason that many students do not finish college, even if math is not central to their major.
2. In a study conducted in 2013, adults in 23 countries were asked to submit expense reports based on odometer readings (requiring basic arithmetic). Given that Americans have so much education in math you would think they would shine in this task. Not so much. Americans ranked third from the bottom.
3. A growing number of universities are no longer placing the same emphasis on mathematics scores as they did in previous years. Admissions staff recognize that students can do exceptionally well in all their courses, but lack an aptitude in mathematics.
4. Advanced mathematics is not critical to many careers. In those instances, math requirements only serve to turn people off education entirely. “Many of the letters I receive,” he writes, “are from professional parents whose sons’ and daughters’ lives have been mangled by mathematics barriers.” Hacker believes that advanced math classes should be electives, not mandatory courses; he quotes a high school math teacher: “There is no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum.”
Hacker is fearful of math taking precedence over all other studies or interests: “My concern, as an educator and a citizen, is over the precedence accorded to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in expanding spheres of our society.” In place of rigid STEM courses, Hacker advocates PATH that stands for Philosophy, Art, Theology, and History (or even, Poetry, Anthropology, Theater, and Humanities). He replaces the STEM mission statement with the PATH version: “We live in critical times,” he writes, “because we are falling behind our competitors in PATH pursuits. If our nation is to retain its moral and cultural stature, we must underwrite a million more careers in PATH spheres every year. If we do not, we may continue to lead in affluence, but we will decline as a civilization.”
High school and college students throughout the nation, can I get an “Amen”?