Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cheerfully innumerate

Happily ignorant

I'm sure we all remember in Season 17 when Marge Simpson expressed to Lisa her regrets about blowing off the calculus final in order to party with her boyfriend Homer: “Since then, I haven't been able to do any of the calculus I've encountered in my daily life.” Ah, yes. Thus do our mistakes return to haunt us, and—as we all know, a working knowledge of calculus is crucial for success as a homemaker.

The obvious basis for the humor is the effective disjunction between calculus and housekeeping. The more subtle reason is perhaps more significant: a sense of relief in the viewer. “Ha, ha! Thank goodness it doesn't really matter that I didn't learn any of that useless stuff!” It salves their guilty consciences over their collegiate screw-ups and omissions. “Math! Who needs it? Only nerds! (And I'm not one. Hurray!)”

 Brian O'Neill seized the opportunity to write a semi-humorous article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after discovering that Google's Laszlo Bock found no significant connection between college grades and job qualifications. He cites Bock as saying in a New York Times interview that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless.”

What? Algebra grades don't predict job performance? Grades in English composition don't correlate with corporate success? Shocking!

And why should they? I concede that the classroom is an artificial environment that does not in general (and is not intended to) emulate future work experience. The integration of the knowledge you acquire in the classroom is a separate skill, as is the selection of the right tools for doing a particular job. Why are heads exploding (or pretending to explode) over these “revelations”? People don't begin entry-level jobs with all of their skills and knowledge pre-melded into a unitary capability. Who knew?

A degree really signifies that you are able to achieve a goal, which is why many companies care more about your persistence in achievement than they are in the grade point average you attained. This, however, is the point at which people bewail the math classes that prevent attainment of a degree: “I can't do the math required for a college degree, so math shouldn't be required.” But college degrees are a sign of a range of qualitative and quantitative skills, so this argument suggests a watered-down college degree is okay. Should it have an asterisk on it? Should it be labeled “college degree lite”. Does everyone deserve a college degree even if he or she is illiterate or innumerate? Note how readily the argument generalizes:

“I can't do the _____ required for a college degree, so _____ shouldn't be required.”

Student success would soar! And student job options would correspondingly shrink.

Oh, but Google says academic success doesn't correlate with occupational success. Please pause to consider that Bock was describing what they discovered in the people they hired. Go ahead and visit Google's job opportunity site. They need account managers and executives more than anything else (at least during this summer of 2013). Minimum qualifications? Looking at today's listings in order, I see BA/BS (MBA preferred), BA/BS, Bachelor's (MBA preferred), BA/BS, BA/BS, BA/BS, BA/BS, BA/BS, BA/BS, BA/BS (and that's just page one). You get the idea.

Shall we do what Google says and ignore college attainments, or as Google does? While Google may not ask for GPAs and specific college majors, it still wants to know you can complete a certain level of education. If you can't, they're less interested in you (although they will in some instances accept “4 years relevant work experience” in lieu of the bachelor's).

Students without math skills may nevertheless thrive in the many occupations that minimize the need for numeracy, but those students dramatically constrict their options and straiten the path to success. And it's too late to have Euclid himself as an instructor: “Give him a coin, since he must profit from what he learns.”


plam said...

The right message to take from Google's announcement is something more like "it doesn't matter if you have a 2.0 GPA or a 4.0 GPA". I've heard this before: people with higher GPAs don't tend to subsequently do better than people with lower GPAs.

I do think that there is a difference between a 2.0 GPA and a 0.8 GPA.

It has never occurred to me that this would be an argument for removing stuff from the curriculum. Of course you have to know stuff. So you should have the BA/BS with at least a 2.0 GPA.

The Ridger, FCD said...

On the show Evening Shade, the quarterback was banned from playing because he failed an algebra test. Because it was possible that the team might actually win their first game in three years if he played, the principle was persuaded to let him take a make-up test; the only caveat was that it had to be a REAL test. So several teachers and students set about tutoring the boy (and a couple of his shaky teammates). At one point he threw up his hands and cried: "Why do I have to know this stuff? I'll never use it!"

And the late, great Michael Jeter proclaimed: "Why, I use math every day of my LIFE!"

Everyone stared at him.

"Well, I AM a math teacher," he said defensively.

Disturbingly Openminded said...

How much and which math is a fantastic perennial debate in one of my circles (actually, the same goes for English in another of my circles because I play poker with a bunch of high school English teachers).

I generally come down on the side that says you aren't "educated" if you haven't learned some higher math.

What drives me crazy, however, are the folks I meet whose innumeracy is even more basic. (Example: "If I put $1,000 into one CD and $1,000 into another CD and both CDs have the same interest rate, will I make more money than if I just put $2,000 into a single CD?" This was a few years ago when CD interest rates where more than infinitesimal.) A college graduate asked me that.

I wonder how well folks such as that can operate in life (and vote sensibly) when very simple mathematical concepts are beyond them.

Another example, this one from an elected official in my locale. He insisted to me that a tax credit of $100 for certain favored taxpayers was not at all the same thing as collecting a tax and then sending a check for $100 to those same favored taxpayers. As far as I could tell, he really seemed to think that sending a check would cost $100 of tax revenue but not collecting the $100 in the first place was cost-free. He was as if he thought 2 - 1 was not equal to 2 + (-1).

Zeno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy said...

This is great!