Andrew Hacker ’51
Andrew Hacker ’51, a political scientist, went to his college's math department and asked to teach a course.

Why does every U.S. high school student have to take algebra, geometry and precalculus?

Ninety-five percent of jobs don’t need them, says Andrew Hacker ’51, a professor emeritus of political science at Queens College.

And, he argues, those courses “don’t help us make sense of the federal budget or the economics of corporate America.” What’s more, “there’s no evidence that mathematics makes you more thoughtful in other areas.”

“I kept asking the why question, which goes back to Amherst,” he says. “I’ve always thought that the center of the liberal arts is that three-letter word.” No answer convinced him. So he asked a second question: Is there a better way?

Hacker—whose political science research relies heavily on the use of numbers—went to the math department at Queens College a few years ago and asked if he could teach, experimentally, one of the introductory courses. He’s now taught the class for three semesters.

In it, he covers mathematical literacy, also called numeracy. Students learn to analyze election results, for example, and to interpret demographic data.

Hacker’s new book, The Math Myth And Other STEM Delusions (The New Press), makes the case that more harm than good comes from making all students complete a prolonged mathematics sequence in high school and college. He believes this leads students to drop out, and that failing math prevents many otherwise-talented students from completing college.

“Mathematics, both pure and applied, is integral to our civilization,” he wrote in a 2012 New York Times op-ed. “But for most adults, it is more feared or revered than understood.”

And as he points out in a February 2016 Times op-ed, “The Wrong Way to Teach Math,” even after all those years of school, 82 percent of adults in a national survey could not compute the cost of a carpet when told its dimensions and price per square yard.

Hacker recalls the last math course he took as a student. “Freshman year at Amherst, we all had to take a new course combining calculus and physics,” he says. “Our teacher, Robert Breusch, was heroic.”

Hacker started teaching college courses in 1955, inspired by Amherst political science professor Earl Latham. “Not only was I entranced by his classes but, essentially, I wanted to become him,” Hacker says. “He was the consummate teacher.”

Sixty-one years later, Hacker continues to teach two courses a year. “I figure I’ll keep doing it as long as I can remember my students’ names,” he says.