The Case for Algebra



Requirements (Photo credit: katerha)

As sometimes happens when I try to ingest the editorial section of the newspaper along with my morning cup of coffee, a column stirred my wrath and forced me to add some non-dairy diet creamer to my cup to assuage the bitterness. This particular article made note of the fact that many colleges across the nation are removing college algebra from their basic requirements because algebra is just too difficult for many students and has no practical use in most fields of study. In my humble opinion, nothing could be further from the truth, but the gods of algebra obviously have a poor PR department and are allowing the subject to take it on the chin from detractors as badly as Romney and Ryan are absorbing blows from their Democrat opponents. The movement to remove algebra from basic school requirements is now reaching down into public schools, allowing students to complete a high school education without exposure to the reviled subject.


“I hated algebra!” I can hear you scream. “It’s not useful for anything! What can this possibly have to do with politics or societal problems?” I promise I will connect all the dots if you will read on. I am going to start with an example that I used a few months ago in a column on “dumbing down.” Please pardon the repetition, as I found the example particularly suited to this subject as well.

While traveling a few days ago, I stopped at a convenience store for refreshments. The total of my purchase was $3.72. I handed the pleasant young cashier a ten, and was surprised when her broad smile immediately dropped to her knees. She stared at the bill as if I had handed her a live snake or a letter from the IRS. For at least 30 long seconds, her eyes darted back and forth from the numbers on the cash register. Finally, she sighed deeply, walked to the other side of the counter to retrieve a small calculator, fiddled with it for a minute or so, and returned, saying, “Your change will be $6.28 ” With marginal difficulty, the young lady counted out the exact change and handed it to me with a smile that said, “Job well done!”

I don’t mean to demean the cashier in my story. She was, without a doubt, placed in a very awkward and untenable position by her thoughtless employer. Walk into any national fast food chain to order a Big Mac, a Bob’s Fiery Burrito, or whatever, and the cashier will be standing before a cash register that has pictures on the keys. These national employers know they cannot trust many of their cashiers with numbers.

Analytic thinking, such as is required to determine change in the above example, is learned behavior, for the most part. You can learn by rote the fact that 3 times 4 = ?, but when confronted with 3 times x = 12, (the algebra version of the same problem) you are required to think, to analyze what number plugs into the equation and why. Algebra teaches you the mechanics of analytic skills involved in plugging in the various pieces in the proper places to solve the problem. Thinking skills can be taught, and should be taught by our public schools and colleges before unleashing graduates into a world where thinking and reasoning skills will have huge impact on their ability to succeed in all walks of life.

How does one learn to think? I can relate to only two courses of study in my scholastic endeavors that actually required thinking and reasoning skills. One exercise was known a generation ago as sentence diagramming, a task that required the student to place on a diagram the various words that made up a complete sentence, thereby thinking about where and how each word or phrase should fit to make the sentence convey the intended message. As far as I can determine, sentence diagramming disappeared into the abyss a few decades ago, so that part of analytic reasoning skills is no longer a part of our education curriculum.

The only other course that actually teaches thinking and reasoning skills is algebra, and according to the article that incurred my ire, our leaders in education are trying desperately to toss it into the trash heap as well. The arguments in the well written and balanced article stated that algebra is difficult for some students, and may even keep them from graduating college. I don’t doubt the validity of that argument, but would counter with the fact that many math oriented students struggle desperately with mandatory history, social studies, or biology classes, but they, by and large, struggle through.

History, social studies, et al, are important, but are necessarily taught in such a way that the main requirement for doing well is rote memorization and the ability to regurgitate facts on a test. What year did Millard Fillmore die? Who wrote The Fall of the Roman Empire? Such knowledge is essential to acquire a complete education that provides a broad view of our surrounding world and society, but in structure, such courses of study do not require or encourage analytic thought processes…thinking.

The main thing algebra teaches in not math. The newspaper column rightfully points out the fact that many if not most students will never find a use for algebraic calculations in their chosen fields of endeavor. But what about the thinking skills; what about the analysis of any given situation? A surgeon must measure and analyze all aspects of his patient…age, general health, weight, allergies, and much more, before putting them to sleep and cutting into them on the operating table. Don’t you hope your surgeon has good thinking and analytic skills? Where do you think he or she learned them? What about a truck driver looking at a map and plotting the best course to take across an unfamiliar city. He must take into account the roads, of course, but also an assessment of traffic patterns, stop lights, one-way streets, weight limits on various parts of the chosen route, and so on. Do you believe thinking and analytic skills would help the driver make the most efficient and safest choice? Truck drivers don’t need algebra, some would say. They do need good analytic skills, however, and in my estimation, algebra is one of the few places to glean those skills in school.

The now defunct television series Numbers made an extreme but entertaining case for the use of math, including algebra and its extensions, in police work, city planning, sports of all kinds, and many other aspects of our lives that we believe to be far removed from classroom algebra.

Think you don’t need algebra? Think again. There’s that word again…think. I did find it very interesting that one of the article’s vocal opponents of algebra in high school was a political scientist. Consider that for a moment. If a political scientist is against algebra, and by extension, against teaching thinking and reasoning skills, his attitude might help to explain why many of our politicians don’t seem to have put any thought or reasoning into much of the legislation they pass. They never learned to think, never learned to reason, and, so, have no ability to properly analyze the real effect of the laws they pass. Maybe they should pass a law requiring a course in algebra for all politicians!

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