Math with Bad Drawings

The Reluctant Gatekeeper


From time to time, math folks can’t help wrestling with the old, pot-stirring question “Is [algebra/calculus/trigonometry/mathematics] class really necessary?”

The argument goes like this: At every step of education, students face math requirements.

What’s weird is that, once you’ve cleared the bar, you rarely use the math you learned.

Math is just a gatekeeper, a sorting mechanism, a bouncer used to keep some people out of the party. So why not eliminate those dumb requirements altogether?

In the ensuing debate, math folks leap to defend the discipline. Skeptics parry with counterattacks. In the end, we talk, blog, and Tweet right past each other.

Both sides dislike math education’s competitive, exclusionary nature. One side aims to overcome it by reorienting towards a higher purpose. (“Math is beautiful/useful/the best way to learn reasoning!”) The other side prefers to curtail math’s presence. (“End these foolish requirements!”) But to me, all of this dances around an obvious truth.

Why does math function as a gatekeeper?

Because our educational system is full of gates.

The judges behind these gates find themselves sifting through piles of applications. They turn to math as a simple signal of desirable qualities.

We all know it’s not a perfect indicator. But admissions and HR departments seem to find it useful anyway.

Meanwhile, even when it’s not required, students pursue mathematics in order to prove their diligence, muscle, and intellectual worth in the competitive economy. They want to get through the gates, and they see math as the key.

Mathematicians don’t necessarily encourage or desire this dynamic. It happens above and around them—sometimes even in spite of them.

This is a dreary thought for both the anti- and pro-math camps. The exclusivity comes first, and math simply rises up to fill the gap. Eliminating the gatekeeper won’t increase the number of spots at Harvard or jobs at Google. Students will just seek other grounds on which to compete, and the folks evaluating students will seek other grounds on which to distinguish them.

This frame helps me understand why each side of the algebra debate sounds so out-of-touch to the other. The purpose math-lovers would choose for the subject doesn’t necessarily match the purpose assigned to it.

The idea of “math as competitive platform” discomforts me. Still, I see a modest path forward.

First, frankly acknowledge the system’s competitive nature. We math teachers wield undeniable power over young people’s lives, and we should aim to do so responsibly, openly, and evenhandedly.

Second, just because math plays a role in sorting doesn’t mean it can’t serve eight hundred other magnificent purposes. In spite of the constraints, we should endeavor to make education as rich, meaningful, and “useful” (however you want to define that word) as possible.

Is algebra/calculus/trigonometry “necessary”? Well, apart from maple syrup, very little in life is. But is mathematics bursting with potential to inspire and to enrich students’ mental lives? The answer to that, I believe, is a resounding “yes.”