Is Algebra Worthless?
Richard Cohen uses the anecdote of a girl who dropped out of high school because she couldn’t pass algebra as the basis for a column arguing that one can get by just fine without math.
I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time — the only proof I’ve ever seen of divine intervention — somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again. I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry while I busied myself learning how to type. In due course, this came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever took.
Here’s the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know — never mind want to know — how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later — or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note — or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.
University of Minnesota biology prof P.Z. Myers is furious.
Because Richard Cohen is ignorant of elementary mathematics, he can smugly tell a young lady to throw away any chance being a scientist, a technician, a teacher, an accountant; any possibility of contributing to science and technology, of even being able to grasp what she’s doing beyond pushing buttons. It’s Richard Cohen condescendingly telling someone, “You’re as stupid as I am; give up.” And everything he said is completely wrong.
Algebra is not about calculating the answer to basic word problems: it’s about symbolic reasoning, the ability to manipulate values by a set of logical rules. It’s basic stuff — I know many students struggle with it, but it’s a minimal foundation for understanding mathematics and everything in science. Even more plainly, it’s a basic requirement for getting into a good college. . . .
Quite true. Of course, the last begs the question. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a requirement for getting into a good college?
One could argue, as Cohen does tangentially, that people who lack the capacity to pass high school algebra are unlikely to contribute much to science and technology but might nonetheless go on to meaningful tasks, like journalism. (Of course, as Mark Tapscott and others will tell you, inumeracy is a decidedly bad trait in an aspiring journalist.)
This all gets back to an even more fundamental question: What is the purpose of higher education? Or, indeed, education, period? Is it mere training for a job? Or is it, as Myers would have it, something more?
[To] push a little bit, stretch our minds, challenge ourselves intellectually, learn something new every day. We ought to expect that our public schools would give kids the basic tools to go on and learn more — skills in reading and writing, a general knowledge of their history and culture, an introduction to the sciences, and yes, mathematics as a foundation. Algebra isn’t asking much. It’s knowledge that will get kids beyond a future of stocking shelves at WalMart or pecking out foolish screeds on a typewriter.
If a degree is merely a credential for employment, there’s not much argument for requiring algebra for those not aspiring to scientific and technical fields. Ditto literature and the arts for those who are not headed in that direction. Or foreign languages for those not intending to travel. If it is about broadening the mind–in a sense, an end into itself rather than merely a means–then all those things must be part of the curriculum.
English (or whatever written and spoken language predominates in a given society) and mathematics are the two essential languages of education. One is simply not educated without a solid foundation in both.