by Martin Cothran

In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Tianhui Michael Li and Allison Bishop question the utility of teaching calculus in high school. The reason? There are other fields of mathematics better suited for preparing a student for the job market.

“For most Americans,” say the authors, “solving a calculus problem is not a skill they need to perfcalculus-chalkboardorm well at work.” When the aerospace engineering industry was at its peak, teaching calculus made sense. But what we need now are people who can manage data.

The Minuteman and Apollo programs are things of the past. It is the needs of Silicon Valley that should be dictating math education. We should be preparing them, not for NASA, but for Apple.

The future of 21st-century America lies in fields like biotechnology and information technology, and these fields require very different math—the kinds designed to handle the vast amounts of data we generate each day.

… Computers and computation are ubiquitous and everyone—not just software engineers—needs to learn how to think algorithmically. Yet the typical calculus curriculum’s emphasis on differentiation and integration rules leaves U.S. students ill-equipped at posing the questions that lead to innovations in computation. Instead, it leaves them well-equipped at performing rote computations that can be easily done by a computer.

The guiding assumption behind their argument against calculus as the culminating mathematical discipline in high school is that the purpose of education is to get a job, and that the curriculum should be dictated by the needs of industry.

But the economic landscape is littered with failed attempts by our education system to predict what students will need to know when they graduate. This is why a liberal arts education—an education in the universal skills students need to know no matter what profession they plan on going into—has always proven superior: because it prepares students to do anything.

But more important in this case against calculus is the confused idea these authors seem to have—along with a lot of other people—that the sole purpose of education is job skills training.

The purpose of education is not to develop workers for industry; the purpose of education is to develop a student’s mind.

If the curriculum of our schools is to be dictated by what students will need when they go to work, then it will need a complete reworking, since the vast majority of students will not only have little use for calculus, but neither will they need algebra, or geometry, or trigonometry. In fact, nine out of ten people (maybe more) will have no use whatsoever for anything other than common arithmetic.

If you walked into the offices of a tech company in Silicon Valley, you would find few people actually using the kinds of skills championed by these authors. Most of them will be involved in communications and human relations. No math required.

Although classical education is commonly perceived to be humanities oriented, at least half its emphasis is on the liberal arts, half of which is math.

The irony is that classical education, whose purpose, along with passing on a common culture, is to train the mind, is the only philosophy of education that can provide a justification for calculus. Why study it? Because it will help a student to think better.

Repeatedly we hear employers voicing their complaints about the skills that job applicants don’t have. And when they voice them, they don’t talk about their applicant’s lack of data management skills, but their lack of thinking skills in general. This is why, when our education system sets its target on producing good workers, it inevitably fails, and why, when it keeps its eye on producing well-read, intelligent people with good character, it generally succeeds it producing better workers anyway.

There is a reason to teach calculus, but you can’t find it in any philosophy of education that sees a by-product of education as its central purpose.

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