I can’t say that I agree with Hacker’s position, that freshman algebra courses serve more of a gate-keeping than a preparatory function for high school and college students. (The analogy might be to the Latin-based instruction in the classics, which was once seen as the primary purpose of secondary education)
Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.
Part of the reason for my disquiet is the concern I voiced the other day about our excessively short-term focus in our definitions of “use” and “usefulness.” But I think that we have reached a point where either significant educational resources (time, teachers, coursework, practice) will have to be poured into this kind of instruction, or some kind of alternative developed. So I think it worthwhile, even for advocates of freshman algebra instruction, to articulate a convincing account of how it helps students in and beyond school.
Here is a superb rejoinder to the advocates of a strictly utilitarian concept of education: Maria Popova’s post on the educational thought of Abraham Flexner’s The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (1939).
Flexner, a contemporary of John Dewey, wrote:
I have myself spent many years pleading that our schools should become more acutely aware of the world in which their pupils and students are destined to pass their lives. Now I sometimes wonder whether that current has not become too strong and whether there would be sufficient opportunity for a full life if the world were emptied of some of the useless things that give it spiritual significance; in other words, whether our conception of what is useful may not have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.
I think one of the biggest gaps in any accountability scheme is how we evaluate the impact of our teaching or our research over significant periods of time. We talk about “life-long learning” as a goal, but how can it be factored into an annual report? Every experienced teacher knows that the effects of her teaching may take years to turn up (if at all?), but even this kind of time-span could be irrelevant when we talk about the longer-term effects of our research. Flexner reminds us:
Over a period of one or two hundred years the contributions of professional schools to their respective activities will probably be found to lie, not so much in the training of men who may to-morrow become practical engineers or practical lawyers or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there come discoveries which may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishment of the useful ends for which the schools were founded.
So how can these longer-term interests and concerns be brought into the picture when we discuss public higher education?
In this essay in the Chron, a Chair addresses a disappointed job candidate about what kept the candidate from getting hired during a campus visit. (Short answer: communication- and especially listening skills in a high-stakes research presentation ).
Here’s a preview:
I chair a humanities department in a medical school. One of our candidates came to the podium, pulled a file of papers out of a leather folder, and started to read his talk. And kept reading. And it was all over.
A humanities department in a college of medicine might seem like a good place to read one’s paper to the crowd. After all, many papers are delivered that way at humanities conferences. But in medical schools, papers are never read to a group. In fact, to a faculty member in a college of medicine, that is so unusual as to garner confused looks.
Medical schools are moving toward interactivity, and reading a paper reveals that the applicant doesn’t know our culture or, worse, is (gasp!) part of the old guard.
That may seem unfair. It is unfair. If the candidate had known our culture, he would probably have delivered his talk differently. But he wasn’t the only candidate. And he’d been given the same chances as the others who took the time to ask us—in advance—what a good job talk might be like.
Though intended specifically for job candidates in literature departments, the takeaway is something that all PhDs entering the job market should consider: learning how to teach effectively almost always entails developing one’s communication skills. Job candidates should therefore learn how to communicate the value of what they do in a variety of professional contexts. For one thing, not only does this make them better, more self-assured teachers, it can also help improve their chances in a competitive job market.
So try to become more sensitive to the potential audiences for your research, and try to learn how to imagine how it would operate in a variety of professional contexts, whether these are departments, publication venues, or conference presentations. As this story demonstrates, this kind of skill in translating your work for others can make all the difference in your job search.