Discourse / Editorials / April 17, 2013

Thoughts from the Embers: Changes to math and science requirements

EmbersStarting with the class of 2017, every Knox student will have to satisfy both a Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning and a Natural and Physical Science requirement. The prospect of having to take more math and science is unlikely to thrill students who live in buildings other than SMC, and the addition of more requirements hardly sounds pleasant to anyone. But making students take courses in these areas is not a bad thing. It is not the subject matter itself, but rather the methods involved in those subjects, that make science and math worth studying for non-science and math majors.

For students who spend their time in Old Main and CFA, math and science can seem not only like a foreign language but also irrelevant to their fields of study. After all, a creative writing major is unlikely to benefit from knowing how to perform a convergence test on an infinite series, and a history major can probably get along without understanding the ins and outs of organic chemistry. What is the utility, then, in forcing students to take courses which seem to be at best tangentially related to what they want to do? How can more requirements mesh with Knox’s “freedom to flourish”?

Before we can answer that question, we need to debunk a couple of myths. First, the new QSR requirement does not mean that everyone will have to take math. While those courses that will fill the QSR requirement have not yet been designated, preliminary conversations at the April faculty meeting seemed to indicate that it will include some computer science, statistics and logic courses. Those students who wish to avoid taking pure mathematics will probably still be able to do so.

Second, most Knox students end up taking both a math and a natural science course anyway; only about 20 students in each graduating class “double-dip” and use one course to fulfill both the current Math & Natural Sciences foundation and the Quantitative Literacy Key Competency. Thus, the new requirements represent more of a symbolic move than an actual change to the curriculum.

So what’s the point? If the goal of a liberal arts education, and education more broadly, is to equip students to examine problems critically and arrive at logical, insightful answers, then that education must provide exposure to a broad range of paradigms and methods with which to approach a question. The scientific method, in emphasizing the importance of situating questions within a systematic framework and following an ordered pattern of steps to arrive at an answer, is one way to do this. The abstract thinking inherent in math and logic courses is another. The two approaches are equally important and equally deserving of being learned.

The subject matter of math and science courses is important — understanding numbers is essential to interpreting the statistics that permeate the news, and having some basic knowledge about natural science is helpful for comprehending why things work the way they do — but so is being able to approach a problem critically and devise an answer based on rules and restrictions that already exist. Not every question can or should be answered scientifically or mathematically, but if you want to arrive at the best answer, you have to select the correct way to do so. And sometimes, that way is different from your typical worldview.

Because methods are just as important as course material, we strongly support the splitting of the math and natural science requirements. Even the most ardent humanities student can benefit from learning how scientists and mathematicians approach the world and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of those approaches. Freedom of choice in selecting courses is important, and based on current statistics, this requirement will hardly infringe upon that. Rather, it gives students additional tools to assess and respond to the world around them.

TKS Editorial Board

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