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Is Algebra Necessary? – NYTimes.com

Andrew Hacker (born 1929), a professor emeritus (ie semi-retired) from Queens College (NYC) in Political Science wrote an opinion pice of the NY Times trying to make the case that algebra shouldn’t be a required part of the high school curriculum:

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html?pagewanted=all

“It???s not hard to understand why Caltech and M.I.T. want everyone to be proficient in mathematics. But it???s not easy to see why potential poets and philosophers face a lofty mathematics bar.” Just one example of the author’s ignorance is this statement. I don’t know if he’s ever taken a philosophy class, but domains in philosophy like symbolic logic makes massive use of algebra. Philosophy probably uses more algebra and theorem proving than any field other than mathematics and theoretical computer science. Modern work in philosophy is very much about empirical data gathering; the hottest area right now is even called “experimental philosophy”.

 

However, the author is not just out of touch on what philosophy is, he seems out of touch on the arts. “I hope that mathematics departments can also create courses in the history and philosophy of their discipline, as well as its applications in early cultures. Why not mathematics in art and music ??? even poetry ??? along with its role in assorted sciences? The aim would be to treat mathematics as a liberal art, making it as accessible and welcoming as sculpture or ballet.”

 

WTF? It’s more important to learn how algebra was used in early cultures than how to do something useful with it? Ballet and sculpture are considered accessible and welcoming to high school students? It’s clear that he seems to think philosophy here means just some random wandering BS. But poetry? The people who are the modern poets with relevance to our society are people like Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, Jay-Z, etc. and what they do is not being taught in high school, and it’s probably foolish to even try to teach people to do that in high school. It’s pretty reasonable to debate exact what topics should be taught in high school, and how much algebra vs geometry vs stats, etc should be taught, but the point is to actually learn something, and mathematics is one of the few areas in school where students are actually forced to learn something, that’s why it is so hard. It’s so hard for everyone.

 

“It???s true that students in Finland, South Korea and Canada score better on mathematics tests. But it???s their perseverance, not their classroom algebra, that fits them for demanding jobs.” Exactly. So he’s right about something.  The point is that mathematics is hard.  It’s hard work, and by perseverance and hard work you learn something.  Education can teach you that you can, with hard work, learn something that at first seemed incredibly difficult, and once you’ve learned it, you’ve also got a new skill.

 

As an aside, Andrew Hacker is a strong proponent of the idea that schools should be less about teaching skills, (i.e. like a vocational program) and more about teaching students how to “think”.  I am very skeptical when people talk about education as teaching people “how to think”.  I have not been able to find someone who can actually be very clear about what that means and to show that it actually really works, and the only way I know to teach someone how to really think is to teach them logic, mathematics, and statistics.  Maybe physics is the discipline that most teaches you how to “think”.  So that when they are a shown a complicated problem that has a right answer, they can think clearly through and get to that answer.  Now, teaching rhetoric and how to convince or compel people is actually something different, and might be better considered a domain of marketing or public speaking or something.  That’s sort of the art of clouding the minds of others, and is actually a perfectly reasonable field of study.  But teaching people how to “think” means some form of mathematical thinking.
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