This division centers on strongly held beliefs of the role for college-level mathematics. Are we attempting to impart mathematical numeracy? Train students to use higher-level mathematics? Or, provide a weeding service for other disciplines and the higher education system as a whole? Amazingly, these three root ideas are not mutually exclusive to the dichotomous debate of “College Algebra is the minimum requirement to collegiate work,” or “Statistics and other courses are just as rigorous.”
Many of my colleagues believe that College Algebra is the minimum requirement a student should have to complete to earn a college degree. I disagree. Having taught in K – 12 and having taught College Algebra, I firmly believe that College Algebra is a less demanding course than an Algebra II Honors course taught at high schools in the State of Florida. Thus, by allowing College Algebra to be the defining factor for a college degree implies that we only expect college graduates to complete Grade 10 mathematics. One colleague argued that Calculus should be the minimum requirement for collegiate mathematics work. Calculus sets the bar a lot higher, for only a small fraction of the population will ever pass a Calculus class. But, do we really want to set the bar that high?
A growing trend in college-level mathematics is an approach to numeracy and that is taught through courses commonly referred to as “Liberal Arts Mathematics.” These courses often contain a broad curriculum and introduce the students to mathematical topics they have never encountered. For example, some of the more common topics are Voting Theory, Graph Theory, Set Theory, Formal Logic, and Principles of Finance. Some argue that because these topics are not Algebra based, they are not rigorous enough for collegiate mathematics. I argue that by the simple nature that they are new material, whereas College Algebra is high school material, students who complete these courses have demonstrated more numeracy and proven themselves to be a better college student.
Another reason for using the Liberal Arts courses as a gauge of college-level mathematics is because they are not sequential. That is, if I have a basic understanding of the material in Liberal Arts I, it won’t affect my ability to have a strong understanding of Liberal Arts II. In College Algebra however, if I only have a basic understanding of the material, I will fail when I attempt Precalculus. The importance of this concept is that many degrees require two college-level mathematics courses as a minimum requirement, which brings up the elephant in the room.
Are we imparting knowledge or weeding? It is quite apparent that the way the system is designed, we are supposed to do both… Many engineers, doctors, lawyers, etcetera will certainly tell you that they have never used Calculus once they left college, so why was it required for their program? The answer is simple: completing Calculus requires high analytic intelligence, determination, and perseverance – all qualities that we want in people who do jobs where decisions affect life and death. But the question becomes, do we need to weed-out people whose chosen career fields aren’t so paramount to human survival? For example, an elementary school teacher isn’t required to have the level of analytical ability we would expect from a structural engineer, and she really only needs a middle school level of mathematics to teach basic arithmetic, so I postulate that having her complete a Liberal Arts curriculum in mathematics is more advantageous because it actually allows her to enjoy mathematics as opposed to seeing mathematics as the enemy.