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What Is the Value of Algebra?

Thanks to Pharyngula, Uncertain Principles, and Gene Expression over at Science Blogs for pointing this out.

Here's an interesting article in the Washington Post, written by some guy named Richard Cohen, who basically says that algebra is a worthless topic to most of the population, excluding the technical people who are going to need it for their careers. He argues that it shouldn't be a requirement for people to graduate from high school, which I think is just plain stupid.

He goes on to say, "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." My goodness. If your argument is that high school should only require students to learn the bare minimum needed to survive in later life, which seems to be his point of why students don't need algebra, how are English or history any more valuable? I know I'm biased by being an engineer, but I do try to keep my education well rounded. And I can honestly say that in my daily life, excluding my job, I use algebra far more than history, and way more than English. Hell, English is instinctual - we'd all learn it even without school. And history? I mean, when's the last time you had to know when King John signed the Magna Carta? As opposed to say, trying to balance your checkbook, or figuring out your car payment, or even just trying to make sure that the plumber isn't ripping you off when he charges you for his work?

Don't get me wrong, I think that our education should be well rounded. History and English are important, especially history in my opinion, so that people can put current events into their proper perspective, and learn from the past. But algebra is just as important. And it's not like it's asking a lot for people to learn algebra. It's basic, basic stuff. It's not like the requirement is for students to know calculus, or differential equations, or vectors, or imaginary numbers. Algebra is only one small step up from arithmetic. I use it everyday, and to compare it to English, algebra is as fundamental as being able to recognize nouns and verbs. If a high school diploma is supposed to have any merit for saying that a person has a fundamental skill set, and isn't just a piece of paper saying that a student showed up to class for 12 years, I don't think it's too much to ask students to understand algebra (and language, history & science, as well).

Here's one more statement he makes that bugs me, "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." This argument is so bad I almost don't know where to begin. First off, most people don't own the types of calculators that can do anything beyond simple arithmetic, and wouldn't know how to use an advanced calculator if they had one. The types of people that do own those calculators and know how to use them, or that own and know how to use the types of computer programs he's talking about, are usually technical people that have a good, fundamental knowledge of mathematics to begin with. They're not using them to replace that knowledge, only to save the tedium of doing hand calculations over and over. And the last part of that statement is just as off base. His argument against algebra was that students don't need it because most people don't use it in daily life. Well guess what, most people don't "write a column" on a regular basis, either, so does that mean English shouldn't be required? And I can do just fine finding thank-you notes without studying English. That's still no excuse for not having a well rounded education.

Anyway, this article gets me worked up because it's a mindset that seems to be so prevalent in much of our population. PZ at Pharyngula does a really good job of thoroughly attacking this particular article, and I'd recommend reading his post.


How dare schools make you actually learn something in order to graduate!

I've read through most of the comments on Pharyngula in regard to this, and just wanted to clarify something here. Fundamentally, there is a problem in our education system. Students should be taught better, and this is probably why so many students aren't good at various subjects. However, Cohen's article doesn't address that root cause. His response is to say that algebra shouldn't be a necessary skill of high school graduates, and that's where I disagree with him.

This also brings up another interesting issue that I've been thinking about - the increased importance of diplomas and degrees in our society. How important should they be? To put it in historical perspective, Wilbur Wright, who invented the airplane along with his brother Orville, and who was a very good engineer in the modern sense (not just a tinkerer), never received his high school diploma. That's not to say he couldn't have. He attended high school and did well at it, but his family moved at the end of his senior year. They debated delaying the move so that Wilbur could earn his diploma, but in the end figured that the education itself was the important aspect, not some piece of paper. But today, it's very difficult to receive a decent job without a high school diploma. Not just that, but it's nearly impossible for someone from my generation to receive a "professional" office type job without a college degree (my father's generation can still rely on experience to some extent). Is this the way it should be? Should diplomas and degrees be so important? Should there be more emphasis on experience and skill? I don't know, and I don't pretend to have the answer, but I think it's a question worth asking.

Great reading, keep up the great posts.
Peace, JiggaDigga

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» Why do I need this? from mightcan
This is an article by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. The gist of it is that he is replying to a young student that he, too, doesn't see a need for algebra to graduate:Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will [Read More]


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