One of the courses I took this summer was Pre-Calculus Plus at Dalhousie. Perhaps our instructor was too kind to us – I performed unevenly, but I still managed to eke out an 83. I sat down last week at SMU to take the calculus entry test and scored 20 out of 40. I needed 26. I bought a review booklet and studied all weekend. I took the test again. I scored 23. “Sorry, William,” the professor said.

Before I launch into this, let me tell you something about the current state of math education: It’s somewhere between confusing and abysmal.

I mean when I was in high school, there was university prep math, open math, and, er, the euphemistically named “leaving high school math,” which was known as “trucker math.” And that was just for

*Grade 10*. In Grade 11, the university prep branch branched further into “science math” and “academic math” (known as “arts math”). Same for Grade 12, but in Grade 12 you could also take calculus, though you could and can get into a B.Sc. program with plain old Grade 12 science math.

So let’s see… that’s three years of high school, with

*twelve*different math courses. What a mess!

At Dal this summer I had three choices:

- Pre-Calculus, essentially a quick skim through G11 and 12 science math, yet for people who have G11 and 12 “math” (presumably academic)

- Pre-Calculus Plus, the same but spread over twice the time for students that have been out of math for a few years (this is what I took)

- Academic Math, a run through G11 and 12 “arts” or academic math, which requires G10 math.

This was confusing to me at first because my high school ran science and academic math in parallel, not in sequence. Anyway, a lot of people switched down to Academic Math, and I almost did, but I’d taken “arts math” in high school.

Ah, but there were things that are in Academic Math today that weren’t in the arts math stream in high school, and now I hear that even the “science math” and “arts math” terms are obsolete! So now I don’t even know what I have or how what I might have relates to anything.

Also, I never passed Grade 10 math. (Much to my chagrin, my first G10 math teacher was among the invigilators of these entry tests.) I failed it three times (16, 8, 25 – I’ll admit I wasn’t really trying) and was given the aforementioned “trucker math” credit,

*given*because the guidance counsellors figured the folks in

*that*class would eat me alive. I took a returning grad year of high school, and went into “arts math” because I feared that I couldn’t handle the science math after hearing from friends that were failing it. I did super: I got a 93 in the Grade 11 and an 80-something in the 12 (including a midterm grade of exactly 100 – I slacked off a bit after that and made Artifact).

Now what I should have done after that is taken science math in a summer course or something, but safe within the intellectual confines of a Saint Mary’s B.A. program, I disavowed math and majored in English, which offered the opportunity to be creative in a way that didn’t rely on math. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize at the time that math makes things

*more*interesting, not less.

So I finally came back and did Pre-Calculus Plus but this course wasn’t the science parallel to “arts math” I was expecting – it built on G10 concepts I’d slept through and G11 and 12 concepts not taught or forgotten. But I still fought my way through it, somehow…

Only to find that there’s yet another tier of math. Calculus? No. OK, Pre-Cal? Nope. No, it’s “Pre-Calculus Review.” Based on the number of people being turned away from Calculus, I’d say it’s the

*de facto*collection point for people who did not take calculus in high school. It purports to cover many topics “in greater depth than in Grade 12 mathematics courses.” Say again? Are the school boards and universities in cahoots and covering up a necessary tier of math education?

I believe so. “Pre-Calculus” should really be called “Pre-University Math,” (you get into university with it) and “Pre-Calculus Review” should then be called “Pre-Calculus,” (which you then use to get into calculus) because that’s the long and the short of the situation. There were a number of things on the entry test that I’d never seen before – so much so that I found myself wishing to see things that I knew I’d studied but didn’t fully understand. All my Rumsfeldian logic failed me, though, and I failed the test, and now I’m registered in “Pre-Calculus Review.”

To be fair, many science majors these days never set foot inside a calculus classroom. A lot of folks can escape with statistics and/or pre-cal. Calculus isn’t everyone’s first year math, but I’d gone in this year thinking that it could and should be mine, if only because I took an extended, expensive course called Pre-Calculus. It really should have been Pre-Pre-Calculus. Actually, I joked about not being prepared for Pre-Calculus, so in my ideal world there’d be a Pre-Pre-Pre-Calculus course on offer as well.

If you’re reading this and are still in junior high, do me a favour and study math from this moment forward as if your life depended on it. Take advanced placement and honours everything. At least let my tribulations send a message! ;-)