What Hacker got right

I won’t lie: The release of Hacker’s new book, The Math Myth (And Other STEM Delusions), struck a sensitive nerve. I read and listened to Hacker’s interviews with a vengeance, and then I tweeted about them with (somewhat restrained) fury:

Like many in the mathematics education community, I had little interest in and and even less patience for what a political science professor who once taught a numeracy course to undergraduates had to say about the ills of secondary mathematics education (the audacity!). And I still stand by much of what I said: e.g., I still think that comparing the entirety of the field of mathematics to chess and crossword puzzles is rather petty and small-minded. Nor do I believe that mathematics doesn’t have the capacity to “move minds toward controversial terrain.” Of course, I was not the only one provoked by Hacker: Educators, mathematicians, and others more knowledgeable and experienced than I have written extended, thoughtful critiques of his arguments, and I will not repeat them here.

But – and this is where you may disagree – I think that Hacker has raised a crucial question: Namely, why? Why quadratic equations, why algebra, why math? He’s not the first to ask, and not the first to suggest that mathematics isn’t as widely used in daily life as some would believe. Paul Lockhart, for instance (a favorite among mathematics educators), lamented in his Lament (2002) that most people are “under the gross misconception that mathematics is somehow useful to society” (p. 6), criticizing perhaps even more vehemently than Hacker the current state of mathematics education (which he called “excruciatingly boring” and “disturbingly fractured,” “a senseless bouillabaisse of disconnected topics,” among other descriptions that I probably shouldn’t print here [see, e.g., p. 25]). Of course, Lockhart is a mathematician, which certainly gives more cred(ibility) to his critiques; moreover, he wasn’t interested in getting mathematics out of schools, but rather in having educators recognize and teach mathematics as an art. One certainly doesn’t get the sense that Hacker sees anything particularly beautiful about the subject. The point, however, is that many of the arguments that Hacker has put forward are not new – the purpose and the goals of mathematics education have been debated throughout human history, and Hacker is simply the latest to join the line (for more recent essays on the topic, see, e.g., O’Brien, 1973; Dudley, 1987, 1997; Smith, 1989).

The Question is an uncomfortable one to ponder over. It raises other, equally uncomfortable questions, such as: What, then, is my purpose as a mathematics teacher? These are not easy questions to answer, and perhaps most likely, definitive answers simply do not exist (certainly, they won’t be found in the back of the book). Nevertheless, some bold educators have recently chosen to tackle the Question head-on, whether as a direct or indirect response to Hacker: see, e.g., Ben Orlin’s Why You Need Math and Karim Kai Ani’s On Purpose. (In fact, even I’ve even tried to answer it, albeit several months ago, before the release of Hacker’s book made waves – I did so in response to my students’ interrogations, who [as teenagers and children often do] did not shy away from asking difficult and controversial questions. Children certainly have a knack for getting at the heart of an issue.) Others, however, have focused on other flaws in Hacker’s arguments, such as his (possible) misunderstanding of the nature of the number pi – and here, I will be bold and say that I think we may be missing the point.

I know that the Question (i.e., Why math?) may seem like a threat. I certainly felt threatened by Andrew Hacker, and I suspect that many other educators did too. Perhaps his critique was not especially well-constructed, and maybe there’s good reason to be suspicious of a political science professor claiming to be an expert in the teaching and learning of school mathematics. But the Question still stands, and I think that it’s critical that we examine it honestly, with open minds and without fear, because the way in which we answer it (personally and collectively) has a tremendous impact on curricula, on the decisions that we make in the classroom, on our students’ learning and enjoyment of the subject, and on their future. Although we might will disagree about the purpose and the goals of teaching mathematics, we can start by recognizing that, at the very least, most of us agree that mathematics is valuable, and that (to some extent or other) it is worth learning. Even Hacker would sign off on that.


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