We need more young people to graduate with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees.
Countless articles have been written about ways to fill the STEM gap on this website and others. And as insurers compete with other industries for data and analytics talent, worries about STEM literacy seem to be growing.
But are we worrying about the right skills? At least one contrarian argues that “a frenzied emphasis on STEM diverts attention from crucial pursuits and is subverting the strengths and spirit of this country.”
Andrew Hacker, the author of a new book, “The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions,” stated the view on his website http://themathmyth.net/. Taking to the interview circuit recently to promote his book, he focused particularly on the “math” part of STEM, defining “math” as algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus.
Math defined in this way is a tremendous waste of time, he argues, likening requirements to take math in high school to requirements to take Latin in bygone days. Ninety-five percent of us will never use “math” in our careers or to simply move forward in life. In addition, one-fifth of students don’t finish high school because they failed a math class along the way, he says, describing this a tremendous waste too—in this case, a tremendous waste of talent.
Articles about Hacker and his book piqued my interest for several reasons. First, Hacker is a professor at the City University of New York, where I received a mathematics degree. I remembered that Professor Hacker taught political science, not math. So I read the articles initially to clear up the confusion.
Professor Hacker is indeed a political science professor but with a keen interest in education. These days he’s teaching quantitative reasoning. This new math, which he refers to as “adult arithmetic,” will call for insight, imagination, and analytical rigor.
In a televised interview broadcast on a local news station here in New York, Professor Hacker explained that this type of math will make people more numerically literate. (Video here, 17 minutes in.) If a public opinion poll comes out, more people will ask questions like, “What was the sample?” and “How were the questions worded?”—questions leading to greater insight. “Or when an American company decides to move to Ireland and says it’s for economic reasons, we should know enough about numbers to ask serious questions,” he said in the interview.
The professor does not believe that the math courses that U.S. students have been required to take for decades helped them to be better thinkers or sharpened their minds to understand the world. “Do mathematicians have a more astute assessment of current political controversies? I think not,” he says in the televised interview.
He addressed the broader question of whether there’s a need for more people with STEM skills in an NPR interview here. “We certainly need people who know how to do coding,” he said. “The skills shortage is a myth. The chief shortage is getting people who will work for low wages. That’s why companies in California want to bring people in on H-1B visas who will live eight in a room and do coding for a small amount above minimum wage,” the political scientist said.
Others may want to debate those political views. Personally, I am stuck on Professor Hacker’s views about the value of math—or lack of value. I graduated with my degree in mathematics decades ago. At the time I graduated, I loved pure mathematics in the same way that people love art and music and the sound of Latin. There is beauty in the science of mathematics that even Professor Hacker seems to understand. In an open letter on his website to teachers of mathematics, he described math as “one of the most honored pursuits of the human intellect,” going on to propose that mathematics teachers stop teaching algebra and calculus, and instead teach courses “about mathematics” (emphasize added) that would focus on “its history, its philosophy, and its role in the actual world, from ancient aqueducts to financial models.”
While I don’t use the mathematics I learned in my insurance journalism career today, and didn’t use a lot of it in my prior career as an actuary either, I like to think that the discipline of learning mathematics did indeed help me to think. And there are lots of actuaries who have now risen to executive levels in the insurance industry who took the same types of math courses. They are among the most celebrated names in our industry.
When we worked toward our actuarial fellowships, the first exam we had to pass was an exam in calculus. Didn’t all that studying of the teachings of Newton, Riemann, Gauss, and Fermat give us a greater facility for concrete reasoning on the one hand, and an appreciation for innovation on the other?
Was it all a waste? Are we focused on the right skills when we worry about the STEM skills gap? Is the insurance industry unique in its emphasis on antiquated math skills? Should we rethink this?