Monday, July 30, 2012

In Defense Of Algebraic Ignorance ...

So there was this piece in the New York Times, "Is Algebra Necessary?", which has led to a bit of debate among friends, because I run with a very hip crowd that takes time to debate the necessity of algebra. Make sure to look for us at parties. We're a hoot.

My answer, you will not be surprised to learn, is a resounding "NO."

No, it's not necessary. Not for me, anyway. For some people, say, future algebra teachers, yup, it's a fine, fine idea, but for me and my brain?

N.O. No.

To my way of thinking, there are word people and there are number people. I am very, very, very much a word person. Numbers are fine in recipes and as addresses and as buttons to press on my phone, but beyond everyday uses, numbers can suck it.

I don't want to solve equations and plot points on a graph and connect them into a parabola. I don't want to calculate the area under a curve. I have cookies to bake, people.

One friend, on that front, tried to point out that I use algebra all the time, like when doubling a recipe.

Nope, multiplying a fraction was something I learned how to do in grade school. Algebra didn't rear its ugly damn head until I was in junior high.

Now, granted, a large part of being able to learn math depends on the math teacher. And while my junior-high algebra teacher was a nice woman (I babysat for her son a few times), she could not make me understand math. Nor could my older brother, who would try, bless his heart. He's always been good at math, so it must have been frustrating for me to display no understanding of something he found so straightforward.

But my brain's just not wired that way.

I had one good math experience. One. It would never be repeated. But Sue Berg, bless her heart, was able to convey trigonometry to me in a way that just clicked. I earned an A from her.

An A. In math. On my report card.

It was a total fluke.

Because when I took trig again in college – because there was a math requirement for graduation, never mind that I was an English major – I returned to my previous math-sucking self.

Another friend argued that we shouldn't be allowed to give up on a subject just because they're hard, and that he had to learn literary symbolism, which he found just as useless.

Au contraire, I said. Learning how to see meaning beneath the surface of things is a worthwhile pursuit. That is a skill you use later in life.

But not once have I needed to spontaneously solve a quadratic equation, though I can still rattle it off: the opposite of B plus or minus the square root of B squared minus four A C over two A.

Like I said, look for me at a party. Loads of fun awaits you, people. Loads.


Blogger Jeremy said...

I would argue that algebra is just as much "learning to see meaning beneath the surface of things" as literary symbolism.

Math is also hard, because the answers it gives are inarguable (unlike, say, literary symbolism) and in the real world, often unflattering or uncomfortable. I would argue that even if you can't create or solve algorithms with much fluency (and I can't), having some understanding that they exist and of their principles is essential to understanding the world.

Saying that no understanding of algebra is needed like saying you can understand cooking without knowing about heat, as long as you know what ingredients are.

On the other hand, from the Kill Math project, this is fun:

12:56 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Hmm. I'm going to challenge your analogy. To understand cooking, you need to know basic cooking principles.

I'm all for everyone knowing basic math including fractions, ratios, percentages, sure. But requiring "advanced" math of those who don't have the acumen for it and will never use it strikes me as a waste of time and resources.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although you bring up a couple fair points, you did not address some key areas. It is proven how algebra helps with problem solving skills and logical thinking. Also, having some algebra skills open up more job opportunities for those that don't want to be wordsmiths.
I would also say that Alberta 1, which is the only HS algebra requirement, would not qualify as "advanced math"...IMHO

1:24 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

How about making algebra elective? I'm sure it's useful for many people, but for those of us whose brains just won't grasp it, it's like learning a difficult foreign language that we'll never speak.

I was part of the "gifted" program in junior high, such as it was, and we spent a lot of time solving logic problems. I can't say I've ever used that skill again either, not to that degree.

Deductive reasoning and such are good, but I think there are ways to teach that without making kids slog through a subject they just can't grok.

I have a friend who would have graduated magna cum laude from college if it weren't for mandatory math classes that brought her GPA down. That's unfortunate. She was an excellent student in all but one area, and that area has nothing to do with the life she choose for herself.

5:48 AM  

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