Two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner, Harvard Professor did not take Algebra until College (!)

CJ Westerberg, January 15, 2013 4:16 PM


Originally published by The Daily Riff under the headline "Was Einstein Right About Imagination?"

"Do not worry about your problems with mathematics,
I assure you mine are far greater."

- Albert Einstein

Are we too obsessed with math (requirements)?

Thumbnail image for DSC_0163-1_2.jpgby C.J. Westerberg

E.O. Wilson thinks we would have more students pursuing science degrees if we laid off our obsession with math (requirements in school). 

 Wilson should know.  Known as the "father of sociobiology," Wilson is a Harvard professor, researcher, author, and recipient of numerous awards and honors such as the Pulitzer Prize (twice).  He is also outspoken and provocative - and outlines his reasons why this science-math protocol has to change in a humorous exchange -  check out 4-minute really fun video below.  

It's hard to resist his jaw-drop story how he didn't take Algebra until his freshman year in college at the University of Alabama.  Or, how he finally took Calculus when he was 32 years of age, while a tenured professor at Harvard, learning alongside students who were taking his Biology class while he was the professor.  Admitting that these are extreme examples, Wilson, nevertheless, does make his point.  Do check out the video below.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."

He admits many science students who like science don't pursue it in college because they may not particularly like math and that mastery of advanced math is always considered an absolute prerequisite for any STEM career, and wrongly assume that they have to use it constantly in their work which is not where they want to spend a vast portion of their time and energies.  He doesn't degrade the value of math but wants the standard math-science protocol to be transformed into what makes more sense for the way science actually works today in the real world.

As The Daily Riff outlines in one of our most viral posts, "Why Our Kids Don't Get Math,"  physics professor Joseph Ganem clearly summarizes the conundrum with, "For all practical purposes readiness for calculus as an entering freshman determines choice of major and career," with reasons why this should NOT be so.  In other words, we are disqualifying students from careers in science based upon their pre-calculus ability as they enter their freshman year in college.  

In both videos below, Edward O. Wilson wants students who are  map-makers,  thinkers, learners and imaginers to become scientists, and not to "worry so much about math."  He goes so far as to - spoiler alert - agree somewhat with a suggested analogy from the TED moderator:  What if we viewed scientists as business entrepreneurs who called in their lawyers (in this case, the mathematicians) when they needed them?  How many CEOs are surrounded by experts in their specific fields?  Since scientific breakthroughs come mainly from collaborative efforts - not the solo man or woman in the lab as the romantic view goes - why not pass off certain math tasks to mathematicians when it gets too math-specialized for the scientist?  Don't we do this in most careers?

"Wherever all the commotion is,
then run away."
- Biologist E.O. Wilson, advising innovators to go in the opposite direction
 of where everyone else is, TEDMED 2012
Wilson did more than okay taking Calculus when he was 32; maybe we are making a career in science more painful than it needs to be for many.   Are we losing potential talent along the way, especially with the de-emphasis of the role of the arts and the imagination in science?  Sure, Wilson is an outlier, but what if we stopped the acceleration of higher math mastery and/or obsession for those who may not want to pursue this particular path so early on?  This scenario just reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a mother who was enduring interviews with private high school admissions for her son.   A natural science whiz,  passionate carpenter and video game maker (an impressive trifecta), her son was slated to take Algebra 1 in his freshman year of high school because he took pre-algebra in 8th grade since it was not his strongest subject.  She was disheartened by the feedback she received that her son was already pegged a weak math-and-science student because he was "late" in the game for taking Algebra 1.   The "race" is already over for this boy as a freshman in high school.  So much for these rigid time-table valuations.   

Not sure what mathematicians think of Wilson's talk.  We'd like to hear from you - - -

Related The Daily Riff:

Visions of Math:  What Content Should We Teach?  You may be surprised by High Tech High's curriculum

Three Young Women WOW CROWD - Winners of Google Global Science Fair - video

Time to Change STEM to STEAM

Learning Math:  The Symbol Barrier

Is Math Art?  A Mathematician's Lament

High Tech High: "A great liberal arts school in disguise" as a STEM school - recommended VIDEO

Are STEM subjects so darn hard? Or, do we make them so?

Educator shows how collaboration key to math and science mastery  featuring Freeman Hrabowski
Enhanced by Zemanta

  • johngschroeder

    I'm trying to think of this like an economist because I have been listening to Freakenomics recently. I'd think there would be positions available for someone with a science degree without math just like an MET degree has less math than an ME. Even though I felt like I was crawling through a swamp in total darkness for 4 years as I battled my way up and through math methods in physics, I think that math is a very useful language and I would recommend it to anyone.

  • MRW

    Basing education policy on the experience of one exceptional individual is a terrible idea. Studies have been done to try to tie performance in college to preparation in high school. Took AP biology? Won't improve your college chemistry performance. Likewise, AP chemistry won't improve your college biology performance. AP calculus will improve both of them (and other sciences). My introductory chemistry students are poorly prepared enough for the very basic math involved in the class, they don't need to delay math longer. And the idea of relying on math consultants is ridiculous. Sure, collaborating with a statistician might be useful, but I'd spend my life on the phone if I had to stop and ask every time I came across a calculation.

blog comments powered by Disqus
It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
Leonardo da Vinci
Follow The Daily Riff on Follow TDR on Twitter

find us on facebook

Wanted: Teacher, Coach or both?

CJ Westerberg, 02.17.2014

"The coach is the boss of you, but they're not the boss."

Read Post | Comments

Riffing good stories

Would You Hire Your Own Kids? 7 Skills Schools Should Be Teaching Them

CJ Westerberg, 02.17.2014

Tony Wagner, Former HS teacher, Principal & Co-Director At Harvard School Of Education Posts. "The Ability To Ask The Right Questions Is The Single Most Important Skill."

Read Post | Comments

Is Learning a Sport?

CJ Westerberg, 02.14.2014

Students should not go to school to win - students should go to school to learn.

Read Post | Comments
millennial. cell-phone.jpg

It's Personal: How a Parent Perspective Changes Everything

SMW, 12.09.2013

"For every problem that technology solves, it sort of creates a new one."

Read Post | Comments

American Teacher: responding to students, environments and conditions

SMW, 12.05.2013

"There are very few schools that purposefully try to create lines and connections between different fields. The way most high schools are set up, you're in history class, and then the bell rings; then you go to science class, and then the bell rings."

Read Post | Comments

PISA Test Results are in: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

SMW, 12.03.2013

"If Pisa measures anything, it is the ability to do Pisa tests. Aligning policy along a single performance indicator can be damaging. We need to look at the whole picture." - David Spieghalter, the Winton professor of the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge

Read Post | Comments
Finland. Finnishflag.BobCompton.jpg

The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System

CJ Westerberg, 12.02.2013

New update December 2, 2013 which includes Yong Zhao link and comments PLUS CNN videos

Read Post | Comments

Students and the Common Core - Square Pegs in Round Holes?

SMW, 12.02.2013

"For a teacher, helping a lagging student catch up is as satisfying as helping a gifted student excel."

Read Post | Comments

See Dick & Jane Not Run

SMW, 11.20.2013

Kids Less Physically Fit Than Their Parents

Read Post | Comments

More Featured Posts