Is Algebra Necessary? [I Say No]

As American students wrestle with algebra, geometry and calculus — often losing that contest — the requirement of higher mathematics comes into question.

via Is Algebra Necessary? – NYTimes.com.

This is a very interesting article that puts forward the argument that algebra (and other higher mathematics, such as calculus) are unnecessary and should not be mandated. I agree with it wholeheartedly, not only because I struggled mightily with math in high school (though I believe some small part needs to be blamed on teachers who barely knew the subject themselves), but also because, after I left high school, I never used it.

EVER.

I’m serious. I have not once had to use algebra or calculus in my life, just as I have never had to use those obscure facts from history or much of what they pretend is English class. If I have succeeded at all in this life, it is in spite of high school, not because of it.

Fortunately, the author, Andrew Hacker, addresses concerns that we’re being too easy on people who should pass an essential subject by pointing this out. That’s important.

Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.” Even in jobs that rely on so-called STEM credentials — science, technology, engineering, math — considerable training occurs after hiring, including the kinds of computations that will be required. Toyota, for example, recently chose to locate a plant in a remote Mississippi county, even though its schools are far from stellar. It works with a nearby community college, which has tailored classes in “machine tool mathematics.”

That sort of collaboration has long undergirded German apprenticeship programs. I fully concur that high-tech knowledge is needed to sustain an advanced industrial economy. But we’re deluding ourselves if we believe the solution is largely academic.

A skeptic might argue that, even if our current mathematics education discourages large numbers of students, math itself isn’t to blame. Isn’t this discipline a critical part of education, providing quantitative tools and honing conceptual abilities that are indispensable — especially in our high tech age? In fact, we hear it argued that we have a shortage of graduates with STEM credentials.

Of course, people should learn basic numerical skills: decimals, ratios and estimating, sharpened by a good grounding in arithmetic. But a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above. And if there is a shortage of STEM graduates, an equally crucial issue is how many available positions there are for men and women with these skills. A January 2012 analysis from the Georgetown center found 7.5 percent unemployment for engineering graduates and 8.2 percent among computer scientists.

We do need math. People who can’t add, subtract, multiply, divide, or understand percentages and fractions are pretty much going to be worthless. (Everyone should also understand statistics, which, interestingly, I was actually good at.) And I can see certain subjects in algebra, particularly the basics of trying to find the value of an unknown variable. I can even see trigonometry, though that was an awful subject. But the more intense stuff, and particularly calculus, is utterly unnecessary.

I don’t expect much reform on this front to come from educators, though, because as my friend Doug Mataconis notes at OTB, they are hopelessly wedded to the past.

Hopefully, some people will be spared this idiocy and allowed to actually continue with their lives.