Thursday, May 18, 2006


Rudbeckia’s comment on my post yesterday about a one-year language requirement got me thinking. As someone who, by virtue of my office, must constantly be concerned about student retention, I have very mixed feelings about math. (One running joke at meetings about improving retention: “do we really need a math department?” We laugh, but the fact that the joke doesn’t get old tells you something.)

On the one hand, it’s one of the foundational disciplines, and some level of numeracy is clearly necessary just to be a functionally-educated person in our society. I don’t just mean arithmetic, either; if you don’t have a basic grasp of percentages and fractions, say, much of everyday economics (20% off!) must be mysterious. A basic grasp of statistics is essential to any kind of business or management position, as well as an informed appreciation of baseball. (To the extent that I can do math quickly in my head, it was mostly because of an obsession with earned run averages in my youth. Yes, I was a nerd.) Concepts like “compound interest” or “statistical significance” or “exponential growth” require a decent grounding in math.

All of that granted, I haven’t had to find the cosine of anything outside of a math class. Although I got through calculus 1, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what it was about, what it was supposed to convey, or just why the hell I had to take it at all. (There was something about integrals, whatever those are, and something about derivatives, whatever those are. And I get credit for the class!) And I still think that foisting geometrical proofs on innocent children is child abuse.

I’ve heard math defended as the ultimate expression of logic, usually with the implication that people who aren’t good at math aren’t good at thinking. The argument strikes me as arrogant in the extreme. As a student, I remember intensely disliking the language of math. It seemed to be designed specifically to defeat understanding. (At some level, I’ve long suspected that the affinity of math/science geeks for hobbits and spaceships has to do with a taste for arcana. Either you have that taste or you don’t; intelligence has little to do with it.) At least with history or literature, I could picture what we were talking about. The stranger came to town, the countries went to war; got it. To this day, the concept of a negative exponent leaves me in a fetal position, quaking.

(I was that weird kid who actually preferred word problems to equations. At least with word problems, there was something to picture, no matter how banal. A train leaves Chicago...)

At my cc, and at most colleges I know, every student has a math requirement. And on the occasions when I’ve had access to the data, I couldn’t help but notice that math courses always have the highest attrition rates.

It isn’t just calculus, either. Sometime after I went to college, someone got the idea to repackage 9th grade math as something called “College Algebra,” which I still think is an oxymoron. College Algebra has high attrition. As much as I hated calc, I was fine with stats. But even statistics has high attrition. Hell, the remedial course in arithmetic – yes, arithmetic – has high attrition.

I don’t claim to understand that. Is it an American thing? Is it a generational thing? Is it a function of suspect pedagogy? I’m honestly stumped.

Wise and generous readers, I ask your input. Why does math stump so many more students than any other discipline?