MHC's O'Shea in Forbes on Math Education

Posted: February 26, 2007

In a piece titled "Pick a Number, Any Number," dean of faculty Donal O'Shea writes in the March 12 issue of Forbeson the challenges facing math education in the United States and suggests a way forward.

"In the second half of the 20th century," O'Shea wrote, "the curricula vitae of most first-rate mathematicians included graduate or postgraduate years in the U.S. This is changing. The increasing quality of other countries' universities, coupled with the tightening of immigration and visiting regulations since September 11, has made the U.S. less attractive to foreign-born mathematicians.

"What of our homegrown talent? In the 1985-1986 academic year a little under a million students received bachelor degrees in the U.S., of which 16,100 majored in mathematics or statistics. Two decades later things have changed drastically. By 2004, the most recent year for which data have been tabulated, the bachelor degree total grew 42 percent to 1.4 million, but the number majoring in mathematics or statistics shrank 17 percent to 13,300. One cannot blame the decrease on the rise in computer science: Over the same period the information science majors just kept pace with the bachelor degrees (increasing 41 percent from 42,300 to 59,500). Unhappily, the number of degrees in the more theoretical areas of computer science closest to mathematics fell slightly. This is not good. By way of contrast, the number of communications and journalism majors increased 70 percent (from 41,700 to 71,000) and the number of parks, recreation, and leisure studies majors climbed almost fivefold (from 4,600 to 22,100)."

To address this situation, O'Shea (whose new book, The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe, has just been published) suggests:

"Shoring up our nation's primacy in mathematics and statistics will require attention, flexibility, and multiple strategies. On a national level we need to remove barriers that prevent foreign mathematicians and students from entering the country. We need to enhance mathematical research and rethink mathematics instruction in schools and universities. We must focus on teaching and learning and eschew ideological warfare over the curriculum. Individually, each one of us needs to challenge public celebrations of mathematical ignorance. Let's not applaud the loss of human capital."

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O'Shea Book Reading at the Odyssey, March 13