Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Value of Algebra

An old controversy gets a new protagonist.


John S. said...

Interesting how Algebra needs defending. Here is my perspective as a non-mathematician, to which I would love to hear mathematicians’ insights to because, I ASSUME (uh-oh), they have thought about this more than me and better qualified to answer. On one hand, I never doubted mathematics ability to induce higher thought—see Descartes and Newton for example (even our very own Darren & rightwingprof). For me, such is one of math’s major benefits. On the other hand, a very interesting assault on mathematics reflects the nature of what “common sense” and “good sense” is. Some seem to suggest math is not practical or relevant. Some mathematicians have become apologists. Such a notion intrigues me. What is the cultural value of mathematics seems to be the question? The rise of apologists or the need to make it relevant suggests a rise in scrutiny, or at least perception of such, which makes the power of scrutiny just as real. Mathematics, like many fields, denotes high prestige and often receives treatment (rightfully) as an indicator of general intelligence. Common sense on the other hand is an indicator of low-level intelligence, practical knowledge. Many, I think, feel basic arithmetic falls under common sense, i.e. it is not true mathematics at all (until it is revealed to them they do not know the basic arithmetic supposedly hardwired through common sense when they can not make change at a 7-11—but such is beside the point). It seems to me people undervalue the mathematics they can do, label it common sense—practical, and “higher” math thus becomes an intellectual phenomenon thrown into the contested battlefield wherein philosophy and many of the other “perceived” intellectual fields are debated. “Good sense” suggests we need to teach our citizenry the basic arithmetic of common sense for a well-rounded education and to produce productive members of society. It could be said of introductory science, history, etc. as well. Here, for me, is the paradox: more and more people believe basic mathematics is a part of common sense thus what is perceived as common sense has thus grown. Yet, more and more people are showing not to know what common sense is when it comes to math — thus a crisis point climaxes. Why worry about “higher,” non-practical math, when our citizenry does not even know common sense math. Same could be said for many fields I guess. The tragedy, for me, is an overvaluing (basic arithmetic) of what many people undervalue (basic arithmetic) and the subsequent undervaluing (Algebra/”higher” mathematics) of something highly valuable (Algebra/”higher” mathematics). At some point, mathematics became less valued because more people thought it common sense despite not being common sensical. “Good sense” needs to recapture the value of such things as Algebra.

Darren said...

I've heard poor spellers talk about how unimportant correct spelling is.

Undervaluing=sour grapes?

Doug said...

Well, Darren, were you surprised at the article? I'm an English teacher and I've commented on your blog several times about the need for and value of mathematics.

I see absolutely nothing wrong with setting a minimum intellectual bar for an academic achievement (diploma, degree, etc.). People may debate exactly how high that bar should be until they're blue in the face. However, in my not so humble opinion, basic algebra (Algebra I) is definitely not too much to expect for a high school diploma.

I also believe that one semester of Calculus (basic functions and derivatives) is not too much to ask for receiving a college degree (BA or BS). And I mean REAL Calculus-not Calculus for Social Science majors. As a matter of fact, all of those math/science for Social Science majors classes should be stricken from the course catalog and banned from any institution of higher learning. Any faculty member advocating their introduction should be severely flogged, slathered in honey, and tied to an ant hill (shees-I think I've been reading rightwingprof's site too much-he's rubbing off on me).

Anyway, I see absolutely nothing wrong wih requiring a miniscule amount of "higher" mathematics (barely a step above basic arithmetic) in order to graduate high school and be considered part of a minimally educated populace.

Darren said...

It's nice to hear *someone* say that, especially an English teacher! And not just because I never had an "English for math guys" course, either. I agree with you, a minimum standard should still show the student has learned *something*.

John S. said...

"'Good sense” needs to recapture the value of such things as Algebra."

Sad, I am quoting myself.

I, concisely (do not faint), agree with the notion a higher minimum standard should be in effect for math—and many other fields.

I am just curious why this has all come about.

Why do you think math is undervalued in "American society"?

Darren said...

That is a question for which I honestly have no idea as to the answer.