James D. Stein on teaching math in the liberal arts

Time and technology have changed the education system, but James D. Stein insists that we still have room for improvement, particularly in how the mathematics curriculum is handled in high school. In his latest book, L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels, Stein offers a unique approach that teaches mathematical techniques through liberal arts, making the subject more accessible to those who might otherwise avoid it. Today Stein discusses the challenge of providing students with a broad general background in subjects deemed necessary but which they probably won’t pursue professionally.

Abraham Lincoln and American High Schools

by James D. Stein

February 12th was Lincoln’s birthday.  Like almost everyone in my generation, I was given the official story of Abraham Lincoln and the value of education. You probably know it, how Honest Abe, realizing at an early age the value of education, would trudge miles through snow-covered forest from his log cabin in order to attend school.

I have no doubt that he did indeed so trudge, but over the years I’ve become skeptical of this ‘realizing at an early age the value of education’ explanation. I think Abe, like the vast majority of children (and adults), was basically a pleasure-seeker. Put yourself in his shoes – no TV, no video games, no Facebook. Which is better – a lonely log cabin in the middle of the woods, or a small school, with other children and the opportunity to hear stories far more interesting than anything he could find at home? I’m guessing he went to school in large part because it was a lot more interesting than what he found at home.

Today, however, schools face a problem – its students DO have TV, video games, and Facebook – and they’re stiff competition. Let’s be honest with ourselves; although there are a few students who will find factoring polynomials as interesting as Facebook, most won’t. And let’s continue to be honest with ourselves; although students who plan on entering a career in a STEM subject – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – need to be familiar with algebra, the only time anyone else will encounter an algebra problem during the rest of their life is when one of their children asks them for help with algebra.

And what do we want then? We don’t want both parents to tell their children that they had a really bad experience with math and don’t remember anything, This is not likely to encourage the next generation to pursue the STEM subjects on which our future well-being as a society depends.

So, having cursed the darkness, let me try to light a candle. Our education system does a reasonable job at the primary school level. It’s not perfect, but we do a pretty good job of teaching the three Rs in a highly diverse society. We also do a great job of education at the level of college and graduate school; after all, students come from all over the world to study at our institutions of higher learning, and generally the chief reason our college students go elsewhere is to participate in an exchange program.

Where we truly shortchange students is at the secondary level, where I think we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education – to give students a broad general background in subjects deemed necessary but which they probably won’t use, and to prepare them for life as a productive citizen.

My only expertise is in mathematics, but as I look at the California Framework for Mathematics, insofar as it deals with the high school level, I’m thinking – will anyone other than STEM students use algebra, geometry, or trigonometry in later life? Or even statistics? Probably not. It would be helpful if they understood how statistics functions and what it is used for, rather than knowing how to compute a standard deviation or a confidence interval – which they’ll almost certainly have forgotten within a year.

So here’s what I’d recommend – revamp high school education to give students an enjoyable way to absorb a basic general background in subjects that they probably won’t use later on, and find out what they find interesting and concentrate on doing a solid job of giving them a full dose of that. After all, that’s what we do in college – except for the enjoyable part.

Stay tuned for Jim Stein’s next post on how to give students an enjoyable way to absorb a general background.

LA MathJames D. Stein is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His books include Cosmic Numbers (Basic) and How Math Explains the World (Smithsonian). His most recent book is L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels.