Revising the Open Curriculum: A Requirement in Thinking

Kassar House, home to the Math Department.

Few at Brown dare to question the merits of the Open Curriculum. Founded in 1969 (known then as the New Curriculum), the Open Curriculum abolished general education course requirements. Ever since, each student has been left largely free to choose whatever courses he fancies, with three caveats: One must pass at least 30 courses, complete a concentration, and demonstrate competence in writing. The academic world is chock full of critics who disparage the Open Curriculum as lax and unserious. However, I do not write to join their ranks. In my view, the Open Curriculum is superior to either a “core” or a set of “distribution requirements.” My reasons are similar to the arguments given by Brown, so I shall not bore the reader with a repetition of lofty University platitudes. My criticism of the Open Curriculum is its lack of a mathematics requirement. Gasp! Mathematics requirement?! Yes, I did say that.

In every academic field, in every job, and in fact in every situation imaginable, one must reason. Writers must analyze diction and argument. Engineers must analyze materials and machines. You, in reading this article, are performing a countless number of acts of reasoning — everything from the recognition of the words to the comprehension of their meaning to the formation of an opinion of the argument. Put simply, reasoning is the foundation of all action. We often hear that there are some actions that are “creative” as opposed to “logical.” Some will argue that a painter would be burdened if he had to think about how best to paint, instead of just letting inspiration let him splash colors at random on a blank canvas. But no painter actually paints at random, not even Jackson Pollock. While painting may require very different thoughts than playing chess, both require a thought process.

If reasoning underlies all action, even “creative” actions, then the best preparation for life is to sharpen one’s reasoning. No subject does this better than mathematics. Everything in mathematics must be justified by logical argument; nothing is accepted on faith. While all disciplines involve reasoning, none do so to the extent of mathematics. For, of all disciplines, mathematics assumes the least. Biologists take the laws of chemistry and physics as given; political scientists treat history as given; writers accept linguistics as given. Mathematics, on the other hand, starts from scratch. It makes only the most fundamental assumptions, for instance that A is A. Everything else is not accepted unless proven.

The effect of such rigorous reasoning on personal achievement has been well documented. In August 2009, the Economist published the results of economist Joshua Goodman’s study on the relationship between taking extra math courses and future income. Goodman reported that black males experience 15 percent increases in annual income with each math course taken. In the same article, the Economist reported the findings of New York University psychology professor Clancy Blair, whose research suggests that mathematical calculations “improve reasoning, problem-solving skills, behavior, and the ability to self-regulate. These skills are associated with the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, which continues to develop into your early 30s.” If the brain continues to develop at 30, and mathematics improves problem-solving skills, as these studies suggest, then college students are at a prime age to reap the benefits of a required mathematics course. The idea that mathematical reasoning is vital to success in other avenues of life is not a recent suggestion. Thousands of years ago, Plato’s Academy in Athens had this inscription above the entrance: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.” The study at the Academy was, for the most part, not mathematical. Yet the philosophers there knew that to argue philosophy, one had to know how to think, and the best way to know how to think is to study mathematics.

An objection to a required course in mathematics is that while mathematics might benefit a student, that student would take the mathematics requirement at the expense of another course in his concentration, which might actually benefit him more. Though another course in the concentration would be beneficial, learning how to think better is going to have a far greater return than acquiring additional knowledge.

Another objection to this proposal runs something like this: “MATH! But wait, I can’t do math.” Yes, that is the point. Facility in mathematics is a sign of robust logical thinking, while difficulty in mathematics is a sign of a sloppy logical reasoning — a deficiency that is likely dragging you down in your field of study. The point is not that one emerges ready to take the derivative of inverse tangent when your employer springs this problem on you. Rather, the point is that you acquire a habit of strong reasoning ability.

A third objection is that requirements of any kind are against the spirit of the Open Curriculum. But we have a writing requirement. The mathematics requirement would exist for the same reason the writing one does: Mathematics is a fundamental skill indispensable to all fields.

The above argument constitutes a proof of the necessity of a mathematics requirement in the Open Curriculum. QED.

 

 

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About the author

Oliver Hudson is editor emeritus of the Spectator and a graduate of Brown university in Applied Math-Computer Science.

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