Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Is Algebra Necessary?
If you are a regular reader of the liberal blogosphere, you know that this topic is soooo last week. The story begins with a column by the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, arguing that algebra should not be a requirement for high school graduation.
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.
I will leave aside the issue of whether or not algebra is "used" in daily life or not, other than to say that just because you don't sit down with pencil and paper and factor binomials to solve a pressing problem doesn't mean that the part of your brain stroked by algebra class doesn't come into play regularly.

No, my problem is this: the idea--common among math strugglers--that there is some discrete gene that controls your ability to perform (or not) algebra, and only algebra. I contend that if you failed high school algebra more than once, while giving a sincerely earnest effort to learn, understand and apply it, with all the spoon-feeding direction high school generally affords, then you have some problems that reach outside the walls of the algebra classroom--comprehension, problem-solving, reasoning, likely even fundamental math skill kinds of problems. I'm not saying it's easy. But I can't think that it's too much to ask of a high school graduate.

To be sure, there are certainly bad algebra teachers out there. You may fail to make heads or tails of bad algebra teaching when you might be able to pretty well grasp some better methods of explanation. But that is not the problem of having a faulty couple of brain cells that are useless anyway, which is what I always hear algebra-haters claiming. That is a problem that brings together bad teaching with poor problem-solving skills and a bad enough support system at home that there's nobody to help get you over those humps. You can fail any class with that combination. It's not an algebra problem.

Kevin Drum shows some sympathy for Cohen's basic question here. Atrios does not here. Jeanne at Body and Soul has a response that is beautiful but beside the point. Matt Yglesias tries to get specific with some Algebra uses here. But if you want to read the harshest smack-down, there's Pharyngula.

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