Who needs calculus?

Calculus is the wrong goal for 90 percent of students, argued Harvey Mudd Professor Arthur T. Benjamin at the Ciudad de las Ideas in Puebla, Mexico.

“For the last 200 years, the mathematics that we’ve learned starts with arithmetic and algebra, and everything we do after that is taking us toward one subject, calculus. I think that is the wrong mathematical goal for 90 percent of our students,” he says. “We’re now living in an age of information and data, and the mathematics that will be most relevant to our daily lives is probability and statistics.” Only some professions require calculus. Everyone reads—and many misunderstand—media reports about health, science, and the environment that contain statistics. Better literacy in probability and stats would benefit everyone.

Most students don’t make it to calculus — or statistics. I didn’t. As a journalist — a notoriously innumerate trade — I frequently had to struggle with statistics to understand reports. I found my arithmetic skills very useful.

The Carnegie Foundation‘s redesign of community college math curricula stresses statistics and quantitative reasoning for students who aren’t headed for STEM careers.

I wonder how high school math would change if students could choose between a STEM-prep or math-for-citizenship track. Would we let students opt out of the calculus track in ninth or tenth grade? How about the kids who keep flunking algebra?


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