All the Math Classes of the Liberal Arts Colleges, Where Do They All Belong?

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, January 27th, 2016 at 9:42 PM

$1,253.49. That was the cost of a math class I took this winter break.

I attempted a math class at Edinboro in the Fall of 2015, but by the end of the second lecture, I felt as though I was going to have a panic attack, and the homework assigned was causing me tears of frustration within the first week. It was a particularly hectic semester for me, so I dropped the class and tried to avoid thinking about the impending math course I would have to register for in the winter.

Don’t get me wrong, I like math and it certainly has its tremendous value, but, and this is in complete honesty, I can guarantee you I will never use a thing I studied in that math class ever again. In my naiveté, I had assumed this would be an ideal time to take an online course. There would be no distractions. I would do the work as quickly as I could, and then I would have the rest of precious winter break to do things I actually enjoy, as well as get ahead on essays and articles I had been meaning to write. As the reader may have surmised, the exact opposite happened.

After I bought the outrageously over-priced textbook and access code, I opened the first assignment online and began to regret my decision to take the class immediately. I have always learned best when learning from someone else, especially in math where one false step and your whole answer has gone to hell. I finished the class early because it was self-paced, but I was thoroughly miserable. Almost all of my family members and friends can likely attest to that.

Winter break is always a time when I enjoy the luxury of sleeping. Unfortunately, this worked to my disadvantage, since most of the day after waking up was spent doing something mind-numbingly irrelevant to me. I learned the mathematics of different voting systems, and how to diagram a Hamilton circuit, but I’m a writer. If I ever need to find the inflation rate from the 1980s to the 2000s, I’ll surely send my professor a letter of gratitude generated out of pure disbelief.

On the other hand, I don’t know anything about my professor. In fact, I don’t even know what gender he/she was. Online courses breed a disconnect for the way education is designed to be: handson, question-driven, and social. Given the subject was math, I would send numerous questions to my professor, only to wait a day before a response matriculate. By this time, I had almost completely forgotten the objective of what I was trying to teach myself. The frustrated tears commenced once more when my mother, after a long day of work, tried to sit down and help me. I eventually enlisted the help of friends, one a public health major from American University, another a professor of mathematics and family friend from Clarion University. I sat like a moron as each took their turns trying to explain the concepts to me. Desperate to just get the work done, I would nod my head at whatever reasoning they gave for the way to go about getting the correct answer. I put forth excessive effort to feign interest in theorems that would in no way enrich the quality of life around me or enlighten my thinking.

The truth is, the humanities are worth teaching to everyone, but upper-level mathematics and lower-level mathematics just don’t work the same way. If a math class taught me how to invest or how to finance a car and a home, I would eagerly pay attention to what was being taught. If someone told me how to balance a checkbook or not accumulate credit card debt, these would be things that have a widespread universality. Maybe, just maybe, if we taught these things in our systems of higher education to students who were not members of the STEM field, we wouldn’t have a housing crisis and a nation with one of the largest collective credit-card debts.

Perhaps what’s most disconcerting was the actual breakdown for what the tuition for one single course came out to be. The tuition itself was $882, which, given that I talked to my professor five times over email, was an absolute waste. The technology fee was $57. The number of times I used the on-campus library where the technology was located? Zero. Why? Because it was closed. Please, if the reader knows, why was I charged a fee for a service that was not even available to me?

There was then the student fee of $90, which gave me access to the campus recreational center. I did not use this service. Even if I wanted to use this service, I would not have had the time, given I was spending, on average, six hours a day doing homework. The last fee slapped on was an Instruction Supplemental Fee of $93. The description is vague, but I’m assuming this is what the professor was paid for answering my five questions. Add in the textbook that I rented for $68.38 and the access code I had to purchase for $63.11 for a total of $1,253.49.

I’m very fortunate to have relatives and parents who have heavily invested in my education, because there is no way I could afford to pay for classes such as this one where the price of the class and the applicable content was vastly disproportionate. It’s easier for me to accept this price tag because the money is not inherently mine — that is, I did not work 60-hour workweeks or refinance my home. I did not scrimp on luxuries and privileges because I wanted the best education my money could buy.

However, I know many students who are working to support themselves through school, who do not have the cushy safety net of supportive parents. I also know many of my peers are going to graduate with $20,000+ in student loan debts, that the struggle to find work paired with the exorbitant interest on their loans is not going to be an easy burden to shoulder when the exhilaration of graduation abates.

The problem, as far as I can decipher, lies within the “jump through the hoop” mentality of a liberal arts degree. As I’ve asserted before, I think arts, literature and theatre enrich the lives of all students because there is universality to the messages we communicate via what we read, create, and watch. It cultivates our sense of empathy, our morality, who we are and what our purpose is for the finite time we secure on Earth.

On the contrary, math doesn’t work in the same way. It is a means-to-an-end field, and unless you’re studying quantum physics, you are not going to glean anything in math class that is going to aid you unless you plan on making a living in a field that deals in pragmatism and logistics. Artists, writers, philosophers, musicians, journalists, attorneys, counselors, small-business owners, these are but a small sampling of individuals whose careers will not need to comprehend something beyond a rudimentary understanding of math.

The social stereotype that equates natural math aptitude with intelligence is bunk. It is no more relevant than an assertion that natural artistic aptitude denotes intelligence. Intelligence is not, or at least should not be, measured by unbalanced gains in one particular area. It should be the cumulative understanding of an individual, which would, I believe, be a culmination of the many areas in which intelligence can be quantified. But the time has come for the double standard of, “if you’re ‘bad’ at things related to the arts it’s ok because not everyone has an aptitude for them, but if you’re bad at subjects with a mathematical background you’re not smart enough or trying hard enough,” to end. I subscribed to these academic assumptions without question, and now I’m paying the price.

My mother and I sat in the kitchen after the course looking at the e-bill. She initially tried to rationalize the price by coming up with ideas like, “Hey, at least you were challenged in a healthy way,” or “That’s the point of a liberal arts education, to have a little background in everything.”

She’s right, to an extent, but the math classes most right-brained students are funneled into in a remedial bulk have nothing to do with “a little background.” They are money pits for the school. The thing about pits is that they require digging. If enough students questioned the need to shovel, perhaps we could rewrite major requirements to serve their best interest.

Emma Giering is the Voices Editor for The Spectator and she can be reached at voices.spectator@gmail.com.

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