Beginning Fall 2018, the California State University system’s 23 campuses will remove algebra as a requirement for entering students who are not studying math or science-related careers. Students can take business math or other simple applied math, but the California leadership has decided that algebra is something that college students do not need to learn unless they are pursuing a STEM curriculum.
After all, just how many non-science jobs actually use a2 + b2 = c2 math? But that is the wrong question. We learn many complex concepts not necessarily to use them later in life, but because they change the way we look at the world and the world’s problems.
Let’s back up and start with just addition and subtraction. Why not just stop there? Why learn multiplication and division? You can actually multiply by repeatedly adding. And you can try to divide by making many attempts at subtraction. But it is slow and inefficient. But once you multiply or divide, those concepts of multiplying and dividing affect how you will forever envision building up groups, or dividing them, even when if you use a calculator and no longer do the math yourself.
In a similar way, algebra gives you a new way to look at the world, even if you forget your class time spent doing actual a2 + b2 = c2 math problems. Once having successfully done algebra, you carry with you the overall idea that two factors can vary together, that one can increase causing another to change in an orderly way. And this overall new understanding remains even after you forget how to do the algebraic formula.
You have moved beyond the 1 + 1 = 2 simple math. But for those who never learned to work algebra problems: they don’t know that they don’t know. And a part of the world remains a mystery they cannot solve.
This extends into geometry and geometry proofs. All of us have to deal with the relationships between shapes and sizes. Geometry assists us in dealing with measurements and the relationships of angles and surfaces. But most of all, it changes how we see the world. And again, for those who never worked through geometry, their mindset remains simple. And this world remains unknown.
And so we come to calculus. Consider that you have a limited amount of fencing and you want the largest area that you can contain with that length of fence. Should you make a long narrow area? A circle? A square? That is a problem that algebra and geometry cannot solve. It takes calculus. And again, the amazing part of learning calculus is that later in life, although you have forgotten how to do it, it has still permanently changed how you look at the world.
But the student who has never worked algebra or geometry or calculus goes through the world with an empty toolbox that is barely above counting on their fingers. They certainly will not be pursing science or engineering. But they are also blind to seeing how there is a world that can be measured and manipulated with these math tools.
So it is very important for artists and historians and other folks in the non-sciences to have sampled some higher mathematical reasoning. Even though they forget the introductory mechanics of algebra, geometry and calculus, they now know the world can be understood.
Many professionals in the humanities and other non-science fields have stated that having learned calculus forever changed the way they see the world.
However, I can rarely convince a person who has never studied a foreign language of the value of speaking a second language. And for the same reason, I suspect that many of those making the decision to remove algebra in the California State University system most likely never took higher math.
Meanwhile, I will arrive in China in less than two weeks. Their response to our removing algebra as a college requirement—and it is now being discussed here nationwide—will first be one of disbelief, and then a realization that our U.S. educational leaders are making a conscious decision to reduce the future math literacy of our general population.