Wednesday, September 2, 2009
I knew a lot of smart people in high school. I went to a public school, but it was a “magnet school” that offered a lot of Advanced Placement classes, and let students take those classes without testing into them. A lot of kids from the “gifted” programs went there, and as a result the school regularly turned out National Merit Scholars and graduates who went on to places like Harvard and Columbia and CalTech. Among my friends and acquaintances it wasn't unusual to score in the 1500s on the SATs while taking four or five AP classes (and scoring highly on those tests as well).
Nearly all of these junior achievers took AP Calculus as part of a standard course menu. Few of them had a particular affinity for math (a lot of these folks went on to some sort of Liberal Arts degree and will probably make their living in the humanities, not the hard sciences), but it was understood that if you wanted to make your way into a respectable school and one day have oak furniture, you took AP Calc.
If you believe that schools exist to teach students useful things you probably have never gone to school, but you have also never seen a high school calculus class. Besides a few specialized professions—mathematician, physicist, calculus teacher—no one uses calculus at all. It's probably important for some people to know higher math so we can build rockets and make realistic-looking CGI monsters, but calculus is to people as guns are to ducks: potentially useful in some situations, but useless in practice.
The only point of AP Calculus (and most other AP courses) at my school was to be gatekeepers to exclusive colleges. Students took classes that taught useless information they had no interest in so they could demonstrate to the colleges they applied to that they were smart and motivated. It was resume-padding before these kids had resumes—not a terrible thing to learn how to do, but not exactly on the curriculum either.
I didn't take AP Calculus or AP Statistics, its less-demanding cousin, not because I was number-adverse (I had been on the math team in elementary school), but because I had taken Pre-Calculus and couldn't understand why any of this stuff was worth bothering about. Logarithms, factoring, SOHCAHTOA, Pascal's Number—I still have this stuff cluttering up my brain, and it would be even worse if had taken Calculus. Thank god I don't know anything about derivatives.
I might have been an idiot for not wanting to boost my resume like the other kids, but I don't think I missed out on anything. In fact, if I had stopped taking math after about ninth grade I don't think I would have missed anything. For ordinary people math is useful for handling money, reading graphs and calculating the area and volume of things for home-improvement projects—that's all I can think of. You learn all you really need to know by the time you enter high school, at which point math focuses less on real-world situations and more on right triangles, a shape I hardly ever deal with anymore.
The maddening thing is there is useful stuff that students could learn instead of calculus. What if you taught them about the stock market or managing a mortgage (things that it appears hardly anyone really understands)? Or what if you tossed the quadratic equation out of the window and taught kids HTML or video editing? There's lots of knowledge out there, yet calculus and pre-calculus continue to be taught to students who don't care about it and won't use it.
In early-twentieth century England, public school students (remember, their public schools are our private schools) were drilled in Greek and Latin extensively. They would memorize texts word for word and were beaten if they didn't learn fast enough. Greek and Latin weren't important skills—like calculus is now, it was a gatekeeper to test a student's ability to do something tough. We've gotten rid of the beatings, but we've kept the tradition of teaching arbitrarily difficult skills, which might be just as bad.