Is Algebra Necessary?
In the New York Times for July 28, 2012 Andrew Hacker wrote an article entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?” and concluding that it was not. His argument can be summarized as follows (the article is here: The New York Times)
- Math is hard, algebra is especially hard
- Many children fail it
- It has limited applicability to most people’s lives after school
- Therefore, it should not be required.
Of these points, only the second is incontrovertible and problematic. Many children fail algebra.
Hacker also claims that
The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school.
He is correct that the damage begins early; it begins far before 9th grade. And it is not mathematics that is doing the damage, it is, to coin a word, mismath. Because what is taught in our nation’s elementary schools is not math in any real sense. It is mostly taught by people who don’t like math. We accept this for some reason. Even in elementary school we expect teachers who teach English to read on a reasonably regular basis. Even in elementary school, gym is taught by a gym teacher who, we hope, has some interest in physical activity. We expect music to be taught by someone with an interest in music. We make an exception for math. I don’t know why. Math, even in elementary school, should be taught by people who like math and who do it.
Let us examine each of Hacker’s points
Math is hard
It can be. That is a good thing. Only difficult things are interesting. Watch children learning to walk. It’s difficult! When they succeed, they are excited. And most kids fail a lot before they learn. But once it’s mastered, it is no longer interesting or exciting. The idea that “difficult” isthe opposite of “fun” is perhaps the most pernicious idea in modern education.
Algebra is particularly hard
No, not really. It is true that algebra is a place in the standard math curriculum where a lot of students fail. But this is like saying that it is only the 10th story of a building that is hard to build: The 10th story is hard if the bottom 9 are badly built. We ignore the difficulties of elementary math (because many teachers don’t understand them) and then complain when those foundations collapse under the weight of algebra.
Let’s compare math to English. Why do more children fail math than English? A look at results of literacy tests will show that many high school graduates have very limited English reading skills, and anyone who has to read what college students write will know that many have limited writing skills. On some writing sites it is recommended that text be at or below the 8th grade level. Clearly, many children are failing English, even if they pass it.
Algebra has limited applicability outside school
Even if we concede this point (which isn’t necessarily correct) it is irrelevant. Most of what we learn in school has limited applicability outside school. I took art in high school. I have never drawn or painted since. I took biology. I have not used that since, either. That is not the point. The point of education is not to teach children things they need to know, it is to expose them to the glories of the human mind.
Therefore, we should not make it required
By this logic, almost all of high school would not be required.
Is algebra necessary? In the strict sense, no. You can live without it. You can also live without art, music, literature or sports. Would you want to?