The Math Mandarins and what we can do about their impact

In the current (25 March 2016) issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education there is a piece, "The Math Mandarins," by Andrew Hacker who is a professor of political science and mathematics at Queens College of the City University of New York and the author of The Math Myth, recently published by New Press. Perhaps you have heard of Professor Hacker? He brought us the New York Times Magazine piece, “Is Algebra Necessary?” in July 2012. It caused many of us to reflect. So too, does he make us think about our profession, its mandarins/shapers,  and what we offer the world and how we offer it.

Here are his opening entries:

“Given their impact, they are a relatively small group, by my count no more than 200. Most of them are senior professors of mathematics at top-tier universities best known for graduate programs and advanced research. Many hold office in scholarly societies and serve on public commissions, where they pronounce on the state of the discipline.  So in addition to being erudite, they exert influence.

“I call them the mandarins, since they have much in common with ancient China’s caste, not least for their aura of complacency and privilege. The mathematician Lynn Arthur Steen, of St. Olaf College, called them `the mathematics power elite,’ playing on C. Wright Mills’s trope for America’s corporate overseers. Paul Halmos saw them as a `self-perpetuating priesthood.’ They seek to dictate how a crucial realm of knowledge will be defined, taught, and studied at every level.

“But doesn’t it make sense to defer to masters of a discipline? Every advanced society has professionals who know more about some things than the rest of us.

“My concern is that mandarins aren’t content to stick to their scholarship. Rather, they take it as given that their intellects entitle them to dominate much of our educational system and set priorities for the greater society. While their apparent targets are students, their larger goal is to configure the coming generation of adults.”

Consider this most significant paragraph outlining with the most impressive data for the author’s case:

“The mandarins, in their domineering manner, have sought to grow a garden of intricate mathematical minds to carry the field into the future. In this, they’ve failed utterly, with a singular lack of success in attracting young people to their discipline. The number of math majors, from 1970 to 2013, has declined from 27,135 to 17,408. But the real drop is much greater because the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded overall has more than doubled, from 839,730 to 1,840,164. Math majors in 2013 accounted for precisely 1 percent of all bachelor’s awards, less than a third of the discipline’s share in 1970. It’s hard to find another academic field that has plummeted this far. And the drop in graduate degrees has also been steep, master’s degrees falling from 5,145 in 1970 to 1,809 in 2013 and doctorates from 1,052 to 730.”

Hacker suggests, “Buried in the report was what might seem an innocuous proposal. The mathematics instruction required for science, technology, and engineering `could be improved by having faculty from outside mathematics develop and teach mathematics courses.’ Thus professors of engineering or computer science, along with faculties at community colleges, could conceive and teach the mathematics needed in their varied fields.”

We suggest there is some compromise wherein the mathematics faculty teach the mathematics of need in context. That is, we provide modest but sufficient mathematical foundational support for the mathematics we teach and we teach it in context, context developed by conversations with our “S” “T” and “E” colleagues of STEM.  We are trying to do just that in SIMIODE and we believe “survival” rates in STEM majors could go up if mathematics would finally stop being a filter and act like the pump and engine of creativity it can truly be.

Thank you Professor Hacker for making us reflect on where we are and how we got here.






  1. context
  2. curriculum
  3. discipline
  4. education
  5. mathematics
  6. myth
  7. STEM

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