[This is an elaboration on a talk I gave at #MAAthfest in Chicago.]
It’s wonderful to be here. I spend most of my days with people who don’t fully get me. Wife, friends, dog – none of them gets me like you get me.
None of them understands the feeling of mathematical epiphany that motivates my professional life, the sudden transition from not knowing to knowing.
One of my earliest mathematical epiphanies was the realization that if you let the number of sides on a regular polygon increase without bound, you get a circle.
And that all the relationships you find in a regular polygon have analogous relationships in a circle. For me, that realization was literally a religious experience. I finished that limit on the back of a church bulletin while a churchlady glared at me.
So on the one hand it’s great to be in this room – I am among my people – but on the other hand it’s really uncomfortable to be here because you all make me really aware of my privilege, and aware of how many people are not in this room.
The economic 1% gets a lot of grief lately and whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we are all also in the 1% – the mathematical 1%.
In 2014, 2.8 million degrees were awarded in US universities – bachelors, masters, and doctorates – and 1.1% of them were in mathematics. If you change the denominator to reflect not advanced degree holders but anyone with a high school diploma our elitism becomes even more apparent.
I was on Instagram last night checking out the #MAAthfest hashtag along with The Rich Kids of Instagram. While there are fewer yachts, bottles, and shrink wrapped stacks of bills on the left, and maybe more plaid and elbow patches, there is still the same exuberant sense of having arrived. We have made it.
And just as the economic 1% creates systems that preserve its status – policies like the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners, discriminatory lending policies, and lower taxes on capital gains than income – through our action or inaction we create systems that preserve our status as the knowers and doers of mathematics.
When someone says, “I’m not a math person,” what do you say back? Barring certain disabilities or exceptionalities, everyone starts life a math person. Infants can recognize changing quantity. Brazilian street vendors develop sophisticated arithmetic algorithms before they set foot in school.
It is our action and inaction that teach people they are not mathematical. So please consider taking two actions to extend your privilege to the other 99% of humanity.
First, change the definition of mathematics that people experience.
[Here we explored together Circle-Square, a task that involves questioning, estimation, intentionally declaring wrong answers, recalling what you know about circles and squares, computing an answer, and verifying it. You can watch it.]
Now I don’t want to suggest to you that this is the experience that will change a person’s definition of mathematics and extend our privilege to the 99%. I just want to suggest to you that you just had a very different mathematical experience than the people who encountered that problem in its original form:
Mark an arbitrary point P on a line segment AB. Let AP form the perimeter of a square and BP form the circumference of a circle. Find P such that the area of the square and circle are maximized.
That experience offers people only a certain kind of mathematical work. You recall what you know about perimeter, circumference, and area, compute it, and verify it in the back of the book.
Those verbs are our mortgage interest rate deduction, our discriminatory lending policy, and our tax advantages. Through our action and inaction, society has come to understand that math is a merry-go-round revolving endlessly through those three verbs – remember a procedure, compute it, verify it.
You might think, “Well that’s what math is,” but the definition of math isn’t a physical constant in the universe. It’s defined by people, just as people define the ways that wealth and power accrue in the world. That definition is then underlined, reflected, and enforced in public policy, curriculum, and syllabi.
So, second, let’s change the definition of mathematics in public policy, curriculum, and syllabi.
To begin with, let’s eliminate policies that require intermediate algebra for college study.
The facts as I understand them are that:
- College completion is increasingly essential to even partial economic participation.
- College study is generally predicated on a student’s ability to pass a mathematics entrance exam. In the California State University system, that exam is heavily weighted towards intermediate algebra, problems like these, the majority of which depend on the recollection of an obscure and abstract procedure:
- Students fail these exams in staggering numbers (68% nationally) placing into “developmental math” courses, courses which cost time and money and don’t offer credit towards graduation.
- Those courses are disproportionally composed of African American and Latinx students.
- Only 32% of students in developmental math ever take a math course required for graduation.
It’s hard to imagine a machine more perfectly configured for the preservation of mathematical privilege.
Those statistics would bother me less if either a) I believed in the value of intermediate algebra, b) better alternatives weren’t available. Neither is true. That intermediate algebra has little value to the majority of college educated professionals hardly requires a defense. As Uri Treisman said, “The most common use of algebra in the adult world is helping their kids with algebra.”
I am sympathetic to the argument, however, that we shouldn’t choose college requirements solely because they’re useful professionally. College should offer students a broad survey of every discipline – a general education, as it’s called. That survey should generate intellectual interest where perhaps there was none; it should awaken students to intellectual possibilities they hadn’t considered; it should increase the likelihood they’ll speak favorably about the discipline after college.
Those goals are served poorly by intermediate algebra. And better alternatives to intermediate algebra exist to serve the CSU’s desire to “assess mathematical skills needed in CSU General Education (GE) programs in quantitative reasoning.”
When 907 CUNY students were assigned either to remedial algebra, remedial algebra and supplementary workshops, or college-level statistics and workshops, that latter group a) passed their course in greater numbers (earning credit!) and also b) accumulated more credits in later courses.
So we should be excited to see the California State University drop its intermediate algebra requirement for graduation. We should be excited to see a proposal from NCTM that reserves intermediate algebra concepts for elective courses in high school. But we should regard both proposals as tenuous, and understand that as people of privilege, our support should be vocal and persistent.
We can choose action or inaction here. Through your action, the definition of math may change so that it’s accessible to and enjoyed by many more people, so that many more people understand themselves to be “math people.” I want to be clear that our own privilege will diminish as a result, that we will become less special, but that humanity as a whole will flourish. Through your inaction, or through your tentative, private support for initiatives like these, the existing definition will endure, along with the existing distributions of privilege. Choose action.
2017 Nov 14. Please read a follow-up comment from Alexandra W. Logue, one of the authors of the CUNY study:
Three years after the intervention, although 17% of the traditional remedial group had graduated, 25% of the statistics group had done so (almost 50% more students). To graduate, students had to pass, not only their general education quantitative requirement (which could be satisfied by college algebra or statistics), but also their social and natural science course general education requirements. So, for many students, passing remedial algebra was not necessary in order to pass these other courses. Further, there were no differences in our results in accordance with students’ race/ethnicity. Given that Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be assessed as needing remediation, our results mean that our procedure can help close graduation rate gaps between underrepresented and other students.