Oh, Algebra…

There’s a new book, Andrew Hacker’s The Math Myth. I haven’t read the book yet, although I plan to, but it has caused quite the stir. Hacker proposes that instead of making everyone take algebra (and calculus, pre-trigonometry, trigonometry), schools should instead focus on statistics and probability and other maths instead, since few people outside of STEM fields use those kinds of math. Throw in a logic class or a critical thinking class, and I’m on board.

Personally, I’m fine with occasionally looking at educational standards and seeing if they are really working. Recently, the Ohio Board of Regents decided that public speaking shouldn’t be a requirement and changed it to an elective. I don’t think that’s a good idea since all but hermits have to talk to people occasionally. But it’s a reasonable decision.

Hacker’s idea, however, has caused great consternation among some folks. They’ve become apoplectic in the comments section of any article discussing the book. Here are a few of them and how I would respond:

1). Algebra teaches abstract thinking. Well, I suppose it does for those people who can grasp it. Full disclosure–I took Algebra 1 and 2. I even (technically) passed them. But I had very little idea what I was doing. This was not the fault of my teacher. I’m math deficient and always have been. But I don’t remember any abstract thinking. I remember desperately scrabbling with formulae and numbers that didn’t work for me and I didn’t understand. I suppose that’s abstract, but I doubt that’s what people are talking about. I have taken poetry classes, including one on Blake’s work, and teach poetry, so I can’t possibly be deficient in abstract thinking.

2) Algebra teaches logic. Not for me (see above). Objectively, my geometry class–which I LOVED–taught me more logic than algebra. In fact, as far as I could tell, it was a series of logic problems with occasional math. For the first time in my life, I was getting A’s and B’s in a math course. Then I returned to algebra 2, and it was back to my usual confusion. I do fine in logic. In fact, I teach it as part of my argument class. I do logic problems for fun. I win video games with it. I wish I spotted more of it in the wild. But for some of us, algebra doesn’t have that effect.

3) People do SO use algebra in “real life!” Erm… I don’t. No, really. I work, pay bills, and even do my taxes without algebra. One of the comments I saw was “If you use Excel, you use algebra.” No, the people who set up the formulas use algebra. I type things in boxes and make the machine do the math. That’s the joy of Excel. “Double entry bookeeping is algebra” another person wrote. Perhaps. I wouldn’t know. Most of us aren’t accountants/running our own businesses. Almost all of the math that I do in life is simple math (addition, multiplication, subtraction, division, fractions). Sorry, higher math enthusiasts.

4) It teaches problem solving! Sure. So does cooking. And dealing with children, building a piece of furniture without instructions (and sometimes with them), fixing machines, playing video games, and creative writing. Why is math the only thing that counts for problem solving or thinking? I make my students do problem solving–without math! Gasp!

5) People who can’t do algebra don’t belong in college. Oh, did this one make my blood boil. I have a BS and two MAs. I did well in my classes. I love science–my university had a math/science requirement, so I took and enjoyed lots of science courses. I read complicated science fiction on occasion. Why should I have been barred from college because math and I aren’t friends? How about this? The next time one of these math snobs says something like this, we make is so that you have to be able to read and understand Chaucer in the original Middle English before he or she can get their engineering degree? I mean, if you can’t even understand one of the main legs of our language, should you even BE in college? See how silly that is?

6). Math-phobic people are ruining the country/world/universe/everything! First, I’m not going to pay attention to you if you can’t put an s on a verb properly (“he want’s”? Seriously? Is this what higher math does to people’s brains?). Second, do you think that people who don’t like Shakespeare are ruining everything? Are people who don’t appreciate art the problem? How about people who loathed gym class? Obviously not! Calm down, ostensibly rational math people. As long as we have enough math-people to run all of the things that require it, can’t you leave the rest of us alone to enjoy our passions and phobias? Actually, I’ve become better at math with practice (on my own), but I’m still lost in a fog when it comes to equations. And I don’t cause mayhem where ever I go.

Look, not everyone needs everything to succeed. Certainly, we should expose students to lots of things, not just in college, but K-12. They may find things that they love or are unexpectedly good at. But forcing everyone to do everything because it fits with your particular enthusiasms is silly. Not everyone needs to know how to paint with forced perspective in order to achieve good and interesting things. And not everyone needs algebra. Now, I have a Nikki Giovanni poem I’d like to discuss…Where are you going?

What do you think?


2 thoughts on “Oh, Algebra…

  1. I didn’t get algebra. There is no X in math or a y either. Unless you say “mathy” but that is NOT a word! Really, people? Now we can enjoy core math (which does have an “e”) but does not contribute to understanding. Blah!!!


    1. I was OFFENDED when my beautiful letters were mixed in with those awful numbers. Why are you ruining something I love, Algebra man? 🙂

      And I have no problem with “mathy.” My spell checker does, but I don’t.

      But maybe neither of us can think properly, since we didn’t get the proper does of “higher” math!


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