Public schools in the US are a living history lesson about social class. Grouping by age teaches kids to be sorted according to birth. Sounding bells teaches kids to become factory workers. Our high school math curricula teaches kids how to win the Cold War.
The goal of high school math is to launch missiles and spaceships.
We tell kids that geometry and algebra are useful only as prerequisites for calculus. And calculus teaches kids how to launch missiles. If you get through calculus and you have more time in high school, you get to take the extra math courses, like statistics. Because you need probability and statistics to take down missiles.
The Cold War permeated daily lives of Americans from the early 1950s, and when the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit, the Cold War became a race to the moon. Luckily our established math track for launching missiles also taught students to launch space ships.
Our current high school math curricula is what won the Cold War.
In the early 1960s the US budget for NASA increased 500% which explains the full employment of math geniuses during that time. We were so desperate for mathematicians that the government hired women! And in the end, astronauts became war heroes as they shoved six American flags into the surface of the moon.
What do you do with Cold War curriculum after the Cold War?
Today’s measure of success for math geniuses is the Math Olympiad. The original purpose of the Math Olympiad was to improve math skills in the Warsaw Pact, during the Cold War. The US didn’t start sending kids to the Math Olympiad until after the US won the race to space and it was clear that the high school rocket scientists had nowhere to apply their knowledge.
You could look at our high school math curricula as the equivalent of teaching every American kid high school Latin. Another way to look at our math curricula today is like bringing a knife to a gunfight:
Do you know why the French sucked in World War II? They build the incredible Maginot Line so they would never again lose at trench warfare. But the trench warfare of World War I had no place in World War II, so the Germans rolled into France with brand new tanks as if the Maginot Line were a welcome mat.
We make the same mistake as the French when we use Cold War math in the Information Age. Wars today will be fought with data, and we don’t have a shortage of mathematicians, we have a shortage of computer programmers.
When I was a kid the saying “it’s not rocket science” was so common. But I never hear Millennials say that, because rocket science has no context in their Information Age world. Yet rocket science persists as the backbone of high school math today.