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Why Johnny Can't Add

Harvard Suffers from Absence of Quantitative Requirement

By David S. Abrams

Recently, two major proposals for Core reform have come out, one written by a Faculty-student committee headed by University Professor Sidney Verba, the other by three undergraduates and endorsed by the Undergraduate Council. The two reports have little in common. For example, the Verba tome weighs in at over 60 pages versus a pithy eight for the council-endorsed paper. Also, the undergraduate report seeks major adjustment to the Core, whereas the Verba report calls for almost no extensive change. Significantly, the one major modification proposed in the Verba report is also present in the council report: the addition of a quantitative reasoning Core.

Although the two reports were prepared entirely independently and with different sources of input, they both came to the conclusion that Harvard students need to know more about quantitative methods. This is not such an unreasonable conclusion given the current tilt in the Core toward the humanities, but one that is likely to elicit a negative reaction from many undergraduates. This is because most people simply do not like math. To a majority of the population (even at Harvard), the word can prompt feelings of terror, fear and even disgust. Indeed, it is a disturbing national trend that ignorance of mathematics is not seen as being embarrassing akin to illiteracy, but rather is to some a source of pride.

Instituting a math requirement at Harvard is something that is important from both a pedagogical and a practical point of view. In order to understand its importance, one must determine the present function of the Core. It serves to introduce students to material outside their field of concentration that they otherwise would not encounter. In this way, the Core serves to ensure that Harvard students receive a true liberal arts education. Beyond just subject matter, we learn about the way academics approach different disciplines, or--in Core-talk--approaches to knowledge. Whether this principle is accepted as the unifying foundation of the Core is unimportant. What is important is that it is generally believed that learning a new way to approach problems is a good thing.

So how well is the current Core doing in this objective? As noted above, the Core is heavily slanted towards the humanities. This prevents students from attaining a broader base of knowledge, and exposure to more diverse approaches to knowledge. The field of mathematics is the one glaring hole in the Core today. It is important to remember that the way mathematicians work is quite distinct from the method of scientists. Mathematics does not seek to describe the natural world, and hence can always be perfectly logical and perfectly accurate within its framework. Learning this type of methodology can be useful not only for math or science, but more generally in constructing logical arguments for papers. Beside just the methodology of math, a familiarity with some of the subjects that would be included under a quantitative reasoning requirement (QRR) can also be very useful. The subjects spanned by this field would, like the rest of the Core, include much more than most of us were ever exposed to in high school.

One potential course could be an introductory computer science class, designed to be significantly less intense than CS 50. In this course, students could learn BASIC--a relatively simple programming language--and the fundamentals of programming. Some courses would stress skills that are becoming very necessary in our daily lives. For example, this introductory computer science course could also cover some basics of networks so that students could learn what happens every time they check their e-mail.

Even more necessary today is the ability to understand statistics. The present QRR test seeks to ensure this, but to most students, this is not a very edifying or enjoyable experience. Instead, there could be a new Core course on statistics, in which practical applications are emphasized. But most of the new classes need not be so practical. They should seek to show students the beauty and power of mathematics, and analytical approaches to problems.

Some other course ideas which have been discussed in the Verba report or council deliberations include a course on strategic behavior, which would teach students how to determine the optimal bargaining strategy in asking for a raise, for example. Courses on probability, symbolic logic, econometrics, demographics and mathematical modeling are other possibilities for new courses. In more applied topics, new courses should be developed which give a good one-semester introduction to more traditional mathematics. For example, a course that covered interesting topics in algebra, geometry and analysis without going into excruciating detail could be a good one.

Of course, the present math courses would still fulfill the requirement, as well as statistics, computer science and perhaps a few economics courses. The goal of the quantitative reasoning requirement is not to make those who didn't love math in high school suffer through the next course in the sequence. Rather, the hope is to the contrary: that those who didn't like math (and even those who did, but planned no further study of it) have a chance to realize the full potential of the quantitative approach to solving problems. In adding quantitative reasoning, the Core would be broadened, and it would be more representative of the major fields and methods of study.

David S. Abrams, a junior living in Adams House, is an Undergraduate Council Representative.

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