Friday, February 24, 2006

The Great Algebra Debate

I thought I had a fairly good reply to Richard Cohen's pathetic little screed against algebra. It turns out that Pharyngula's is even better (albeit not by much!). Here are some points:

I'm sure that he has never once rued not being able to use algebra. If I had never heard a poem or listened to a symphony or read a novel or visited Independence Hall, I could probably dumbly write that I don't miss literature, music, or history…never heard of 'em. Don't need 'em. Bugger all you eggheads pushing your useless 'knowledge' on me!

That kind of foolish complacency is what we'd expect of the ignorant, but it takes the true arrogance of the stupid to insist that others don't need that knowledge…especially after you've dismissed the utility of algebra because they can just use calculators. What, Mr Cohen, you don't think the engineers who make calculators need algebra?

Yeah, a person can live a good, bland life without knowing much: eat, watch a little TV, fornicate now and then, bleat out opinions that the other contented consumers will praise. It's so easy.

Or we could 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.

And here are some of the comments:

So Cohen's argument seems to be "Algebra shouldn't be required for graduation from high school." I assume he's talking here about basic algebra, a class my brother and I passed in eigth grade and my sister passed in seventh. He's arguing that since not getting a high school diploma is bad, we should give diplomas to even those who don't pass algebra.

I feel that the same argument could be made about any class in high school. I don't use history in my everyday life, why not get rid of it? English? Nothing in my profession requires analysis of symbolism in literature, so why bother there? And on and on. At some point, we need to address the fact that a high school diploma should be indicitive of more than the ability to show up at 8:30 every morning. One of the many skills I'd hope students have learned is basic algebra - maybe they don't have to solve quadratic equations in their heads, but most students can use calculators in their classes these days anyway. If someone can't be bothered to put in the extra work required to pass a class they're struggling in, should they really get a diploma?

The more people that perpetuate the image that "I suck at math and succeeded in life" the worse math will be off for our younger generations. How can people imply that "I know less" is good? It's sending the completely wrong signal.

Go read the whole thing. Truly entertaining and enlightening.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I truly don't understand all the algebra brouhaha. I've my second graders already perfoming some very basic algebric equations AND 18 of the 20 are ESL (or ELL or whatever the current buzzword is these days) students. Go figure...

Off topic: I know you don't do many of these Darren, but I tagged you in this post. Just thought it would be fun since I visit you almost daily.