Friday, February 17, 2006

What Is the Value of Algebra?

This column may be the stupidest thing I've ever read. I'm not saying math, or algebra is for everyone, but to suggest that it's not important simply because it doesn't apply to this guy's particular line of work is ridiculous. Let's look at some of this:

The L.A. school district now requires all students to pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry in order to graduate. This is something new for Los Angeles (although 17 states require it) and it is the sort of vaunted education reform that is supposed to close the science and math gap and make the U.S. more competitive. All it seems to do, though, is ruin the lives of countless kids. In L.A., more kids drop out of school on account of algebra than any other subject. I can hardly blame them.

Well, I don't blame them either. Obviously, if something is hard, the best solution is just to give up. that's an important lesson for kids to learn. If you can't do it, don't try. Hey, I have an idea, let's just not teach them anything at all, then there will be nothing to challenge them, and if they're not challenged, they won't fail, and if they don't fail, they will all be happy (if stupid).

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.

Well, good for you. Now, if I was bad at typing, and just couldn't do it, do you think I should drop out of school? Some of those others probably went on to careers where they do use math, but I bet not many of them waste their time writing forumulas that show that journalism is stupid.

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.

So, since you've never used it, then no one needs to know it, right? Well, I've never written a column for The Washington Post, does that mean that I should discourage students from being able to do it? It may surprise you, but different people excel in different areas.

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.

Up until here, I could dismiss this whole column as something written by someone who doesn't get math, and is trying to empathize with someone else who doesn't get it either. But this part just shows what a complete and utter moron this guy is. Math is done by computers and calculators. Computers and calculators (and the programming required to make them work) are apparently created by simply wishing them into existence, or maybe some kind of magic pixie dust, I'm not sure. Let's see would I rather have a world without thank you notes, or a world without computers? Hmmm, tough choice. Ok, that's harsh, I actually believe that English and History are very valuable, even if I'm better at math, it's a shame that this guy can apparently only appreciate things that he is good at uses to make his living.

Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.

Wow, a whole lot wrong with this part. First, math does teach reasoning. If he had learned any math, he may have been able to reason his way to several conclusions that would be helpful to him. First, that just because he isn't good at something doesn't mean it isn't important to others, or that it isn't important in general. Also, he could have reasoned that some writing may be great, some math may be great, some math may suck, and certainly some writing sucks. One is not inherently better than the other, and they're apples and oranges anyway. There is no competition between the two. Finally, he may have reasoned that pointing out someone who sucks at geography but is good at math doesn't really illustrate anything. I could just as easily say math is better than writing because Richard Cohen who writes for the Washington Post, sucks at math. It doesn't make any sense. People are good at different things, that doesn't make one any better than the other. Also, I would rather be well rounded and know more about everything, than be some snob who picks one thing that he likes and decides everything else is beneath him. I can identify the sahara desert, write reasonably well, AND I'm good at math.

I am not anti-algebra. It has its uses, I suppose, and I think it should be available for people who want to take it. Maybe students should even be compelled to take it, but it should not be a requirement for graduation.

Ridiculous. If he's not good at it, it shouldn't be required. So, what if some mathematician says that english isn't important, do we scrap that too? Or make it available, but not required? Maybe we should just let kids pick what they would like to be able to do to graduate, that'll probably work well.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a similar column about algebra. Math teachers struck back with a vengeance. They made so many claims for algebra's intrinsic worth that I felt, as I once had in class, like a dummy.

Maybe you felt that way for good reason.

Still, in the two decades since, I have lived a pretty full life and never, ever used -- or wanted to use -- algebra.

I guarantee you that there are plenty of people on this planet who have lived a pretty full life without ever learning to read. Is that an excuse not to teach it, or require it in schools? Of course not. Maybe he would understand that if he'd ever learned anything that would teach him reasoning or logic.

Link via Shakespeare's Sister, who thinks he may have a learning disability, but I don't give him that much credit, I think he's just a moron.

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MDC said...

But don't you understand, that's how some schools work in the age of "self esteem". If something is hard, and lots of kids struggle with it, then by gum, let's lower the standards so everyone feels good about themselves. The only reading most people will do in their career is from training manuals, so let's replace the study of literature with courses in reading "how to" books, because I would wager just as many kids struggle with completing an assigned novel in school as with math. The Logic and reasoning of algebra aside, sometimes school is simply about learning to start an assigned task and seeing it through to completion.

John Howard said...

Good points, mdc. And that is why the article upset me so much, is it seemed to ignore that some kids won't be able to do other things, like literature, or whatever as well. But the only one he's worried about is math, because he couldn't go it, so therefore it's not important. I wonder how he'd like to still have to type his column up on a typewriter.

Robert Bayn said...

Algebra is stupid unless you have a job where it is usefull. Majority of us will not ever use Algebra so it's stupid to make everyone learn it.

John Howard said...

The majority won't have a job using anything you learn in school. Should schools just teach us how to read and that's it? Algebra is important. Everyone should learn it, then if you need it, you'll know it, if you don't, it won't hurt you. If you don't learn it and you do need it, then you're screwed. Also, it's a hell of a lot more useful than people give it credit for.

Chris Howard said...

This ridiculous argument never goes away, does it? And you never hear anyone trying to make the same argument about History or Geography.

I could even buy his argument if the requirement was about calculus, or even trig, but algebra is an essential part of a full education. People making this argument always make Algebra out to be some obscure, weird branch of math. This just shows they should have paid more attention in Algebra class. Algebra is just about figuring things out. It's about using logic to get to missing information. It's a fundamental building block of anyone's education.

Majority of us will not ever use Algebra so it's stupid to make everyone learn it.

See, Algebra's not all about factoring polynomials, it's about learning how to approach problems logically and apply rules to determine missing informaton. People actually use algebra much more than they think. I actually do use algebra in my job, but I also use methods of problem-solving I learned in algebra all the time.

John Howard said...

Actually, I think people do use this argument about history or geography or other things, but they don't have the added effect to it of being able to say it's impossible to understand, so it's not as common.

And good points about using algebra, I think people don't even understand what it is, and that's half the problem. People use algebra all the time without realizing it. Also, in my job, I constantly see people who come to me with problems that are simple and straight forward, which they wouldn't need me for if they only had the problem solving skills that they could have learned from algebra. And you're right, if the argument was about calulus or trigonometry, then it would hold more water.

Also, what made me so mad about the article wasn't just the anti math stuff, but the notion that it was inferior to writing or even typing, which are apparently the keys to the universe.

Dark Wraith said...

Good evening, John Howard.

Words just about fail me in addressing someone who would write what Cohen did. I have spent the past 25 years of my life teaching math, most of it remedial and developmental to people who had entered college without adequate math skills. Through those years, I have heard it all; and for the most part, what I've been hearing are excuses for failure rather than reasons for success.

Only rarely do I have students fail my classes. Those who do almost always have issues that go far beyond anything I could fix in the summary time of 10 or 16 weeks. The remainder of the students make it through, but the method must be tailored to the individual: some students are far more likely to achieve acceptable proficiency with a traditional pedagogy; others require an alternative. "Discovery learning" is wildly successful when done properly; it is, however, an unmitigated disaster when done by inexperienced fools just gobbling grant money to foist "new math" on students who need the master's hand to guide them.

I have even conducted math boot camps that work extraordinarily well, but the only reason they do is because the students are carefully screened and only those psychologically equipped for the four-week Hell-on-Earth are allowed to participate.

Once on the other side of the wall that has been their lack of ability to learn math, students almost always look back and understand fully why they were not as prepared for the "real world" with an absence of math skills, which include everything from ability to use the quantitative tools of modernity (like calculators) to the reasoning skills of antiquity (like two-column proofs).

And the notion that mathematics is somehow separate from, and possibly even a deterrent to, an eloquent life of liberal learning and expression is entirely the claim of those who cannot commit to achieving a minimal proficiency in math. I am a teacher not only of math, but also of economics, finance, computer science, and—of all things—English grammar and Old, Middle, and Early-Modern English language.

I would doubt seriously that anyone would claim my skill as a writer is diminished because of my ability as a mathematician. To that same extent, anyone with whom I have worked in my life as a "real world" business consultant would dispute a claim that my profession as a teacher has diminished my ability as a businessman.

There is no "math gene," just as there is no magic bullet for making math entirely obvious, easy, and transparent. The learning of math takes a prior and an on-going decision to say something like this:

No, it's not the subject; it's me.
No, it's not the teacher; it's me.
No, it's not the culture; it's me.

And upon achieving success, it won't be someone else's; it will be mine.

The Dark Wraith has spoken.

Dee said...

Yeah, back in high school I thought algebra was useless too. (Waaay back in high school, literally before desktop computers.)
Anyhow, computers came along and I, congenital geek that I am, fell in love with programming. And lo and behold! Out here in the real world, I use algebra every day.
And not just for programming. Many of the positions I've held out in the real world require knowledge of formulae to get to the information you need.
You can perform the actual math on a calculator sure but you gotta know what variables to put into the calculator in the proper order to come up with the answer you seek.
Not once in my entire life (and brothers and sisters, that's quite a few years) has anyone ever asked me to point out either the Sahara or the Gobi.
Anybody ever heard of AI? These are computers that can give a darn good imitation of "reasoning".
Knowledge has a funny way of becoming useful long after you learned it and just when you thought you were never going to need it.

Storm said...


I am surprised that smeone as progressive as you was not aware of the shift in focus to eaching the right cultural views and in building self esteem rather writting reading and arithmetic.

I have the same experience of persons approaching me who have no problem solving skills.

Math in general is extremely important just in terms of understanding that when the governments lowers the tax rate on your home but raises the assessed value you might end up paying more tax.

Karl Marx hit the nail on the head when he said you can take down a democracy from the inside.

Toast said...

I can identify the sahara desert, write reasonably well, AND I'm good at math.

That brings to mind one of my favorite quotes ever from Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

John Howard said...

Yeah, that's a good one, Toast.

lil smooth gi said...

algebra is bout seein patterns n problem solving. dese same skills r used in t'inking. if u do not wish 2t'ink, den yes, algebra is useless 2u.

now "geography" is a stupid class, cause it is notta isolated subject. dats like teachin "how 2spell usin only consonants"

"geography" is part of "history". dere is no way 2teach "history" without makin mention of da "geography" so if ur gonna learn it in da "history" class why teach it isolated in a boring manner in da "geography" class where it is basically outta context n without historical events 2liven it up.

oh n bdw, most textboox can make any subject boring. why do dey hire such uninspired writers 2make dese boox ? i have noticed dis in da history n geography boox in particular.

da lil smooth gi says n said...

uh oh, i messed up n didnt getta say : "lil smooth gi says n..."
dats ok u getta c my handsome image. (u c, i yam an adaptable kinda boi)