Rutgers math programs prepare students


In a commentary in The Daily Targum on Wednesday, Leo Kozachkov expresses some misguided sentiments regarding mathematics education at Rutgers. While I appreciate the author’s love of the Elements, I believe the entirety of the commentary displays some serious, and perhaps deliberate, misunderstandings of the facts in question.

Rutgers has leading programs in mathematics and mathematics education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition to producing well-educated undergraduates with degrees in mathematics, Rutgers’ Department of Mathematics also serves many other programs and majors, teaching students a wide variety of mathematics courses tailored to their interests, needs and levels of preparation.

While one cannot dispute the author’s appeal to the well-known problems in high-school education, I certainly cannot fathom why the blame for deficiencies in high-school education are heaped into the pile of things for which he blames Rutgers’ mathematics educators.

The author seems to believe that he has dismantled “Math 103 — Topics in Mathematics for The Liberal Arts” as a hodgepodge of meaningless, pedantic, uninteresting topics that have failed to meet the standards of the liberal arts education one might demand at a university such as Rutgers. Although there are classical connections between Euclid’s Elements and the early beginnings of philosophy and mathematics in the Western world, Mr. Kozachkov seems to believe no other topic could have any such merit.

However, even in the cherry-picked examples, the author belies his complete ignorance on this matter. The study of voting, elections and other matters (sometimes called “social choice theory”) is a widely applicable area of study that has philosophical ramifications that are simultaneously rich and abstract, and yet highly applicable to diverse areas across the social sciences and humanities. The mathematics of social choice theory, including the notable “impossibility theorem” of economist Kenneth Arrow, are rich and deep in their own right.

As a second example, the theory of computation underpins many broad areas of mathematics and related subjects — most notably in the diverse fields of computer science. The abstract and philosophical foundation of computer science and the theories of computation are tied to many modern philosophical areas of interest, like meta-philosophy, epistemology, the philosophy of language, and so on. Mathematicians known for fundamental contributions to computer science and discrete mathematics (e.g. Alan Turing, Frank Ramsey, Hilary Putnam, not to mention the likes of René Descartes) are also remembered as philosophers due to the direct and indirect impacts their works have had on modern philosophy.

The commentary also asserted that students have been duped into learning things that are not mathematics. I would politely request that the author leave such a determination to the mathematicians.

To counter, I assert that the only people being duped are those who might believe that the author’s self-righteous diatribe is anything but an uninformed rant written by someone who is completely ignorant of the realities of mathematics education (on the whole and in particular at Rutgers). He has let his appreciation of the classic Elements belie his refusal to examine in earnest the merits of the modern, diverse, relevant and mathematically significant offerings of “Math 103,” and the myriad other courses in the spectrum of course offerings in mathematics. There is certainly more to math than just Euclid’s Elements — and that is truth with a capital T.

Kellen Myers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mathematics.

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