The War on Algebra
A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.
This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.
When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping for something not so tough. It's not my place to defend the honor of algebra, or any mathematical discipline, and others have already done so. Frankly, I have no particular feelings about algebra at all.
What is disturbing, however, is that Hacker's argument is grounded in fact that learning algebra is hard. Things that are hard make people frustrated and unhappy. When they get frustrated and unhappy, they don't want to do it. And so, per Hacker, they drop out of school and go on to lives as rock musicians and cable installers.
Breaking news: Life is hard. The solution to dealing with hardship isn't to tell Buffy and Jody that whenever something is hard, they can pretend it doesn't exist and go on to subject they enjoy. The solution is to foster a culture where young people toughen up, work harder, overcome their frustration and unhappiness and get it done. Hacker doesn't like that solution.
Remember "whole language"? It was a similar effort by educators to dumb down difficulties faced by students. Why, the theory went, should students suffer the rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar and stifle their innate brilliance? Why not look beyond archaic rules and allow students to air their genius free of constraints? Why indeed.
The reason soon became apparent. First, they produced incomprehensible words, because they couldn't spell. The problem with incomprehensible words is that the creator might have some clue what the word was, but no one else did. Then they couldn't sling together a sentence, so that if there was a thought buried within, no one would ever know. And finally, the truth came out: Little junior was not the reincarnation of ee cummings.
Contrary to the flighty supposition, not only did the elimination of rules free students from the constraints that enabled communication, but from anything remotely resembling thought. The rigor of applying rules to letters came hand in hand with the rigor of thinking. Whole language certainly made things easier, but the price was far greater than its advocates anticipated. Students not only failed to learn the rules of written communication, but lost the ability to think along with it. On the bright side, they were too dumb to realize how dumb they were, and were pretty darned happy about how easy it all was.
What Hacker offers is a variation on a theme. If his argument was limited to the view that algebra was simply no longer a necessary component to live a generally educated life and to participate as a member of society, maybe he would be on to something. After all, the care and feeding of horses is no longer a general necessity, and no one is worse off for the inability to groom or shoe a horse. A few, whose work requires such specialized knowledge, still know how to do it, and that's good enough for society.
But his argument goes wrong:
Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee. Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry.
California’s two university systems, for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history. Community college students face an equally prohibitive mathematics wall. A study of two-year schools found that fewer than a quarter of their entrants passed the algebra classes they were required to take.
“There are students taking these courses three, four, five times,” says Barbara Bonham of Appalachian State University. While some ultimately pass, she adds, “many drop out.”
This is the new way to avoid failure. Get rid of anything that's hard, rub Timmy's tummy and tell him how smart he is. Problem solved! And then comes the kicker:
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.
Well, we certainly wouldn't want to teach American students to persevere. That sort of thing is for Canadians, and they can keep it, thank you very much. They may be well educated and capable of greatness, but American children will all be all smiles and have degrees from prestigious colleges that will enable them to rock the world with their ability to weave baskets. Hah, sad Canadian math freaks!
Hacker then addresses the criticism of his vision of an algebra-less world:
What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² - y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.
Had he paid any attention at all to American political opinions or social analysis? We're a nation of idiots, proving so in every quadrennial exercise. The exertion required to perform algebra involves a muscle in desperate need to exercise: the brain. The ability to engage in linear, rational thought is what allows us to solve basic algebraic equations. It's pretty good for other stuff too, even if our occupations never require us to perform quadratic equations per se.
The underlying message here is that our nation remains dedicated to the removal of barriers to self-esteem and happiness at the cost of, well, everything else. Perhaps our drop-out rate is what it should be, and reflects the distribution of talent and intelligence across the spectrum.
More likely, however, is that it reflects the slackoisie attitude toward hard work. Sorry, kids, but better you learn to persevere, because it's not going to get any easier later. The way to win the War on Algebra is to overcome it, not surrender.