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Posted: 2015-02-26

Andrew Lih is Associate professor, School of Communication, American University.

This commentary is from This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress, edited by John Brockman (2015)

Ohanian note: My physicist husband, astounded that he was married to someone who hadn't taken calculus, gave me an ugly big calculus book the first Christmas we were married. The second Christmas I gave him a notebook with most of the problems worked out. I found that notebook 30 years later. It might as well have been hieroglyphics, but I still feel that doing calculus for love is a better reason than colleges offer for making it a requirement.

I do not propose that we should do away with the study of change or the area under the curve, or bury Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. However, for decades now, learning calculus has been the passing requirement for entry into modern fields of study by combining the rigorous requirements of science, technology, engineering, and math. Universities still require undergraduates to take anywhere from one to three semesters of calculus at a pure math discipline, typically featuring complex math concepts uncontextualized and removed from practical applications, and heavily emphasizing proofs and theorems.

Calculus has thus become a hazing ritual for those interested in going into one of the most essential fields today: computer science. Calculus has very little relevance to the day-to-day work of coders, hackers, and entrepreneurs, yet poses a significant barrier to recruiting sorely needed candidates for today's digital workforce. . . .

Calculus remains in many curricula more as a rite of passage than for any particular need. It's one way of problem solving, and it contributes to our ability to absorb more complex concepts, but retaining it as an obstacle course that one must navigate in order to program and code is counterproductive. Leaving in this obtuse math requirement is lazy curricular thinking. It sticks with a model that weeds out people for no reason related to their ability to program. . . .

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