In the Real World, Advanced Math Doesn't Always Add Up

(By Julie Zhu)
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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

Your recent articles on math prompt me to suggest a line of inquiry on a topic that has long troubled me: what seems a blind allegiance to advanced mathematics for all students and the negative effects it might have on their total education, fairness in their obtaining places at desired colleges or universities, and their career opportunities.

My concern as an academic stems from the fact that most college majors and professional-level occupations do not require math beyond elementary statistics. Through the years, I have routinely asked professionals whether they use advanced math in their daily work. Replies in the affirmative have been extremely rare, including, to my surprise, from engineers.

My personal physician graduated from a prestigious prep school and did his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia. He took the usual advanced math courses to assure admission at U-Va. and then took all of the advanced math courses required to obtain his undergraduate degree. When I asked how much advanced math he used in medical school or in his practice, his answer was none.

There can be little doubt that the nation's economy is dependent on a core of highly trained mathematicians. We must assure that they are available in sufficient numbers. If my assumptions based on my random questions and a great deal of knowledge about the requirements for college majors are correct, then I think the following questions deserve attention:

ยท Is it fair, and can it be justified, for institutions to place so much emphasis on high school math courses and the quantitative parts of the SAT and ACT in admissions decisions? Because college graduation is such a big factor in social status and earning power, doesn't this border on being a civil rights issue if the answer is no?

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