It is nearly impossible to go through your Junior year of high school without hearing the words; “Will this look bad for college?” At Urban, this question is particularly present during the beginning of the Spring trimester, as students select courses for the next school year. This course selection is especially daunting to current Juniors as they prepare for Senior year. After completing the majority of required course material, Juniors battle the temptation of dropping classes, daydreaming about Senior Spring. However, through the haze of sunny, carefree days in the backyard and the countdown marked in blue ink in the old library, this question persists.
The definition of what looks good for college in the mind of an Urban student has become strict. This can be seen in many ways, but to me it is most prominently seen through the choice of taking Calculus. It seems that while taking Calculus may be suited for some Urban students, many others rush themselves into taking the class solely for the purpose of having it on their college applications. While I don’t deny that many competitive colleges may look for Calculus on a prospective student’s application, I do not believe taking Calculus for the purpose of one’s college application is necessary or intelligent, as there are other math courses unique to Urban that are rigorous and may be more applicable later in life.
Henri Picciotto, a founder of Urban’s math curriculum, gathered opinions from various mathematicians on this topic. He received a response from Robin Pemantle, a mathematician at University of Pennsylvania, who said, “Students are arriving at college with more semesters of calculus on their transcripts and a less solid grasp of everything they have learned along the way.” Paul Zeits, a professor of mathematics at USF said, “There is nothing wrong with Calculus—it is an important part of our intellectual history, and is a crucial tool for physics and engineering, but to add more and more calculus classes onto a curriculum is a false declaration of ‘quality’.” Given these responses, it is evident that taking Calculus without being truly prepared or engaged, but rather for the sake of slapping it on to your college application does more harm than good. This sentiment was also reflected by The National Council of Teachers of Math, and the Mathematics Association of America (MAA) who published a joint statement on Calculus in 2012; “Although calculus can play an important role in secondary school, the ultimate goal of the K–12 mathematics curriculum should not be to get students into and through a course in calculus by twelfth grade but to have established the mathematical foundation that will enable students to pursue whatever course of study interests them when they get to college.”
Although taking Calculus may be essential to certain career paths in the maths and sciences, Calculus is far less applicable to those who do not wish to become engineers and mathematicians. While I have continuously found it futile for all students to learn the math taught in Calculus, I find this to be increasingly true as computer programming, coding, and statistics prove to be more important in a generation that is centered around technology. Urban math teacher Jessica Yen said that, “Calculus, while really cool, has applications that are often more in the engineering and science fields whereas in day to day life you probably encounter more things in probability and statistics.” Yen also explained why understanding statistics and probability is beneficial to everyone. She said, “when you read the newspaper you need to understand the data that is being presented, the statistics that are being presented, any type of field of research you go into will involve a certain amount of statistics and if you don’t know how to interpret that or what it means you can be easily mislead.”
While I do not expect that the reputation of Calculus and its alleged importance to college acceptance will disappear, and I cannot predict the way in which college admissions trajectory may change over the next years, I do think it is important for every individual to assess why they find it necessary to take Calculus in high school other than for the purpose of their college application. I strongly believe that while Calculus will remain key to certain pathways of learning, the omnipotence of technology will continue to emphasize subjects such as statistics and probability, and computer programming. It is important to evaluate if Calculus is the right path for you, aside from what you think looks good or bad for college. Zeits used an analogy of classical music to emphasize the negative effect of rushing into Calculus; “At some point, you are no longer becoming a better musician; you are just specializing without understanding.”