There is no escape...believe it or not. Mathematics is everywhere.
I love math and love to teach math. Unfortunately, most of my community college students view math as a necessary evil, thrust upon them by curricula designers who
insist on math as a part of their program, whether they represent the
engineering department or the art history department.
The students I teach are completely focused on getting jobs. They are enrolled in the community
college because they have been told that this is the way to turn their lives around
from being unemployed construction workers or casino employees to being
employed somehow (they really don’t care at what – they just want to escape
from being one of the 16% who are out of work.)
Caring about math is the furthest thing from their minds. The expression on their faces when they enter the classroom is very similar to the expressions I see at the dental office where I go to get my teeth cleaned or repaired.
So, to the question of why students are afraid of math; my feeling is that they are not so much afraid of math as they are of being afraid that they can’t get through the math course to complete whatever program they have chosen.
This is sad on many levels. First, the students are depriving themselves of the joy of understanding
how seemingly complex problems can be solved.
Second, they are so focused on completing the course with a passing
grade, that they miss the beauty of how number systems, the operations on them
and how that system with its operations evolves in a consistent pattern that is
probably unmatched by anything else they will encounter in life. Finally, they are so relieved when they do
pass the course that they almost consciously set out to forget what they have
learned as quickly as possible.
If this poor, but understandable, attitude towards math were the only issue, it would be sad enough, but the real elephant in the room is
the abysmal rate at which community college students either complete a program
or transfer their credits to a 4-year college or university.
A recent study by a group in Sacramento, California who tracked some 250,000 community college students in the California community
college system, found that only 30% either completed a program or transferred
their credits to a 4-year institution.
The question in my mind is this: are the unemployed being given a false hope when told to go back to school? Even if
they finish, they are likely to be saddled with a crushing student loan that
will take a good chunk of the rest of their lives to repay. Also, have we set math up as the troll that
guards the gate to success?
I truly wish math were not such an integral part of this possible deception, and it hurts my soul to see math disrespected by so many who view it as an impediment rather than an enabler.
So, to all my students I say, “Do not trample through my rose garden, unless you enjoy the roses.
It abuses the flowers, annoys me and gets you nowhere. But if you do enjoy the roses, then you have
my full support in learning about them and appreciating their beauty.”
Unfortunately, I still have to teach them whether they enjoy the roses or trample through them.
What do you think? Are community colleges, as they presently exist, worth the cost to the public whose taxes support them?