Mathochism: Why Algebra and politics don’t mix

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

I’m happy to report that the sciatica has kept away since Tuesday, which meant I was able to go to class Wednesday and focus on math for two hours straight without a break. (The professor, in spite of his first-day promise that we would get a 10-minute break in the middle of class, has reneged already.)

The pain, however, came the next day, but it had nothing to do with sciatica. I was sitting in the charming math lab when it happened.

Now, I have previously expressed reservations about the TRL textbook, feeling it lacks a certain dignity. Now, my reservations have taken a turn for the worse.

I was working on homework for the seventh section of chapter 1, which covers multiplication and division of real numbers.

To help students apply such skills to the real world, the author provided a set of graphs showing that in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Education, more women are earning bachelor’s degrees than men. Readers were then given mathematical formulas to estimate trends and to double-check whether the graphs were accurate.

That’s fine, but the graphs weren’t what bothered me. It was the headline above them, which read “Big (Lack of) Men on Campus.” Really, algebra book author? How do you come to that conclusion?

That data is based on how many men attained degrees, not how many are actually enrolled in college. So there may be plenty of men on campus, they’re just taking their sweet time getting their degrees. I knew quite a few back in my day who were on the six and 10 year plans.

But let’s set that aside for a moment. A related graph charted the number of men who get PhDs versus the number of women. Men dominated there, but there was no headline discussing the “big lack” of women in graduate school.

I realize it seems I am getting a bit heated over this, but I would have felt better about it if the author hadn’t gone the extra mile in the homework section.

This is the lovely question that put me over the edge, and ironically, it was posted under the “writing the mathematics” section:
“Do you believe that the trend that the graphs showing a decline in male college attendance should be reversed by providing admissions preferences for men?”

WTF? To repeat, those graphs show a decline in degrees earned, NOT in attendance. So that question is wrong to begin with, because it distorts the data.

More important, what on earth does that question have to do with math?

Most important, why is limiting admissions to women the only answer? The data provides no evidence whatsoever that the women are the problem here. Why should they be blamed for the men not following through on their degrees?

And why is that question not being asked of graduate schools? Should the admission board start discriminating against male graduates?

I realize that the author wanted to mix things up a bit here, but that so-called “homework” question is inappropriate for a math book.

On top of that, I find it highly insulting that there should be such a ruckus over more women getting degrees in the first place. For centuries, women were not even allowed to get degrees at all. They were also barred from medical schools and law schools — in fact, any sort of professional education whatsoever. Priests, airline pilots and CEOs continue to overwhelmingly be male.

Ivy leagues in this country have been coed only for the last 40 years or so, and though medical and law schools did start accepting women last century, they often only offered a few spots to women, as opposed to dozens to men.

In all, this little exercise left a very bad taste in my mouth. Author dude, stick with Algebra. That, not politics, is what we’re here for.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.


  • sexism in textbooks is actually a huge problem. i remember a research and writing textbook in grad school that had snippets of essays as examples and they all addressed sexually-themed material. huh? like a room full of adults couldnt stay interested in their own educations and learn a skill without sexy examples in the book? there was also a rumor that one of my profs had written a textbook that turned out to be unpublishable, for the grasphic and sexually-themed examples throughout. and thats saying something, considering what does get published. thanks for calling attention to this.

  • That is really disheartening, factcheckme. I hadn’t really noticed such things in other textbooks. Then again, I was an English major many years ago, and we mostly read novels and plays, not texts. My undergrad college was also very aware of sexual politics, and would not have included such books on principle.