32 votes

NYT Asks, "Is Algebra Necessary?"

The dumbing down of America continues? Or a good argument?

[NYT] - A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

Continue at the NYT

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Creating Jobs

Practical instruction on how to create and run a business is very much lacking in the public school system. I'm on a council that recently met with our local school superintendent and he was speaking from the perspective that after graduation, most of the students will move away to where the jobs are. I was infuriated that he would accept this fate rather than equip our students to create jobs for themselves and for others right here.

But I guess jobs are created by government, anyway, right? Nobody needs businessmen.

Let's just use Roman numerals instead

We can carve them out of stone!



Algebra, and for some even higher mathematics, provides a useful framework for critical thinking. However, the current school curriculum (say for a homeschooler to get an accredited highschool diploma) requires three years of high school mathematics starting at algebra. And this is kind of a joke. What you get are students who waste a lot of time and don't learn a lot of anything.

A big part of the underlying problem is that people need some framework of motivation in order to learn things. The number one factor in increasing student learning (for children) is parental involvement. If you teach children to love to learn, then a large percentage of them will end up wanting to learn (and learning) algebra. And probably a lot of them will learn it earlier, i.e., at a younger age. But classroom instruction kills the love of learning for most people. So we take a bunch of kids who have been taught to not learn and who hate learning, and then we start a clock at 9th grade, and say, "Now you need to learn up through pre-calculus." What could go wrong?

And incidentally, the terminal point of pre-calculus, is pretty funny all by itself.

As a second aside, I'm pretty sure that all my kids will know calculus well before they reach 18, and I mean really know it---much better than the students I teach. And I'm not really teaching them. Leonhard Euler said that his best learning experience was when he had access to Johann Bernoulli on Sunday afternoons. Euler would try to figure things out that he was interested in, and then he would ask Bernoulli questions. (And if you didn't know, Euler turned out OK...at least in a mathematical sense. If only we could get the intellectual class to really and honestly question the society we have which is based on violence and coercion. But unfortunately, that violence and coercion is the means by which they feed themselves.)

Leave all the thinking to the

Leave all the thinking to the Alphas. You Epsilons just take your pills and do your tasks.

Epsilons? Knowledge indeed puffeth up

That's just wrong Cast.It.Into.Th..., You are essentially saying that only people who have a good working knowledge of algebra are doing any of the "thinking?" I think your statement actually gets at the heart of the issue by means of a corroded artery.

So, everyone who has chosen to fulfill a role in life that helps all of you Alphas be able to do what you do, should just be drugged and resign themselves to the "fact" that all they are good for is "menial labor"?

I would venture to say that some of the world's finest artist, most well known authors, perhaps even world-renowned music(which is math related) composers just may have not been great or even good at algebra. It would be interesting to find out.

It makes me wonder just how many of you advanced, math whizzes excel at the above?

Everyone is different. To me one of the major problems with government schooling IS the ONE size fits all -it doesn't.

Let the free market, like CSA1891 suggested decide who the Alphas are in what fields and let everyone's strengths be improved upon. We need to ask God to help us find the old paths in learning.

I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war. Ps 120:7
Better to be divided by truth than united in error.
The local church(not a building -a people) is the missing link. The time to build is now.

The Alphas, not we Alphas.

I was being facetious, of course.

The article was questioning whether or not over 50 million children in the public school system should be taught algebra. In my mind, that is a path that serves to further subjugate the non-elite. Why learn the history of governments and wars or any critical thinking skills when the elite will feed you after they skim the cream off the top?

I would that the DOE's public 'school' system not teach children anything, but here we are.

Also, if you haven't, I would recommend reading Brave New World when you have extra time.

I'm so embarrassed I should probably delete my comment.

I don't know how your facetiousness escaped me. I guess I got too fired up in seeing all the commenters whose pov is that EVERYone(collectivism) should learn algebra that I got carried away. My reaction lends credence to their argument. : - (

Thank u for the book recommendation.

I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war. Ps 120:7
Better to be divided by truth than united in error.
The local church(not a building -a people) is the missing link. The time to build is now.

tasmlab's picture

What does "pneumatic" mean anyways?

I'm trying to improve my performance in the bedroom.

Currently consuming: Harry Browne, Free Domain Radio; JT Gatto and Holt; Wii U

Typical that this comes from

Typical that this comes from a POLITICAL scientist. Keep the people stupid, cause a dumb population is easier to control.

Granted, most of us won't ever use most of the stuff we learn from mathematics. But the point is that you learn to THINK abstractly. It's not just about our performance in daily life, but also about how you see the world and the relationships within it. Such an altered worldview has an effect on you and its effects are more difficult to assess and measure.

If you take an extreme example and follow this kind of logic to its ultimate conclusion, all other subjects have aspects we rarely use. According to this guy, we should ditch those aspects and just focus on practical skills we will actually use in our daily lives. In essence, it would almost be a throwback to earlier times where we needed to apprentice ourselves to a master, so we could learn THAT job alone. Sure, we might be more efficient and knowledgeable where our jobs are concerned, but we would be cripples in anything else. Imagine a conversation between such a cripple and someone who had a normal education. The cripple would soon be avoided, cause the only thing he would be able to talk about would be his job. He would be a moron where everything else is concerned.

And the effect of these seemingly useless and idle conversations are not to be underestimated. Society has been able to advance itself through communication. And these seemingly idle conversations have more of an impact than you would think. For example, it's often been said that business people need to read the newspaper each day. Not just in order to gain an expanded world view, but in order to strike up a conversation with a potential future business partner. It allows such a person to have a foot in the door so to speak through idle conversation and allows people to assess each other.

Now certainly, where mathematics is concerned, it's difficult to bring this subject up in a conversation. But mathematics is one of the keystones of science. Not teaching it in class will certainly result in a higher divide in the people where science is concerned, where more people just don't understand science. I'm not in a scientific field, but learning mathematics has given me a greater appreciation for science. People like me are more likely to donate to science projects, so even if I'm not in that field, I'll have an effect on scientific progress in the world. And science is the keystone to a country's future. And the world already has a shortage of these kind of specialists, this will certainly make it worse.

If only...

If only we had to worry about you "donating to science projects" we would be in much better shape. The underlying problem in education, however, is coercion.

Until you question the underlying structure of classroom learning and the indoctrination of schooling in general, you will not have started in a better societal direction. The key aspect of this indoctrination is that scientific progress and instruction (increased understanding if you like) is to be embraced uncritically.

This must be questioned. Look where it has led us.

We need a fundamental criterion according to which we evaluate these questions, and Wendell Berry has suggested one: Health and Community. He points out that only one segment of our society evaluates the adoption of technology on the basis of its (desired positive) effect on their community. That segment of society is the Amish.

I think Berry is on to something.

Farmer, I say u are 2nd best commenter of the day...

...on the "Is Algebra Necessary" topic, right behind CSA1861.

Keep up the good work, especially if you really are farming.

I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war. Ps 120:7
Better to be divided by truth than united in error.
The local church(not a building -a people) is the missing link. The time to build is now.

Knowledge ALWAYS needs to be

Knowledge ALWAYS needs to be questioned, that is something we can certainly agree on. And especially government funded education needs to be critically looked at, not just for the quality, but for its brainwashing aspect. I mean, teachers teaching that the US is not a republic, must be one of the greatest lies ever perpetuated.

But the solution is not dumbing down education, which this article basically boils down to. It's more and BETTER education. Because the ultimate society can only be achieved through an INFORMED people.

Regarding the place of technology in society, such logic and considerations are only useful in a closed and static society. We have outside factors to consider. If there were no outside factors to consider, then it would make sense to look at technology from a societal aspect. Having no science in your life could then even be considered beneficial, since it makes life simpler and thus more chance of a social life, avoiding the evils that science brings. But we have diseases to consider. Heck, even potential meteorites capable of wiping us out. The Amish won't be able to help us with that (except pray of course).