Math for America's John Ewing: Should I take calculus in high school?

John Ewing
John Ewing

Appeared on
Feb. 15, 2020

by John Ewing
I am a mathematician, currently president of Math for America, writing about math and science education.

Calculus. For many high school students, it's the Mt. Everest of high school courses, the pinnacle of curricular attainment. "My daughter's taking Calculus!" is a phrase that's meant to impress listeners and raise parental status. Calculus is so evidently a college course. Calculus is hard.

Well, maybe not. As for the "college course" part, here are some facts. In the fall of 2018, about 355,000 college students enrolled in the first semester of Mainstream Calculus (referred to as Calc I). But that same fall, about 450,000 high school students took an Advanced Placement exam in Calculus! Hundreds of thousands more took high school Calculus without taking the AP exam. Is it really a college course?

As for the hard part, well, sure, calculus involves sophisticated ideas—about how the world changes, how we measure that change, and how we use those measurements to guide our existence. Calculus is about the infinite and the infinitesimal, and how they come together in mind-boggling ways. The beauty of these ideas is brilliantly explained in a recent book by the mathematician Steven Strogatz, Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe. (Yes, it has formulas, but mainly it's mathematical poetry, written in readable prose.) Here's what calculus is not: It's not merely a collection of technical skills for manipulating symbols. It's not merely an intricate set of tools for doing devilishly difficult calculations (although it does that too). Calculus is enlightening and elegant, and properly learned, calculus is soul enriching, like Steinbeck or Shakespeare or Plato.

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