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Posted at 05:20 PM ET, 07/30/2012

The end of algebra


As usual, XKCD says it best. “All the fun parts of life are optional.” (Image courtesy XKCD.com)
“Stand firm,” wrote Fran Lebowitz, “in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.”

And it’s not just humorists. Writing in the New York Times this weekend, an emeritus professor of political science named Andrew Hacker caused a stir by denouncing the study of algebra.

“Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves,” he writes. “So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer."

No one ever asks you to solve for x.When my friends call me late at night complaining about how hard it is to eliminate exes from the equation, we never turn out to be talking about the same thing.

The idea that a train would depart Baltimore at 10:30 precisely, moving at a constant rate of speed and forcing you to decide when to show up in New York City to meet it is ludicrous. Have these people ever ridden on Amtrak? The train will get there when it gets there, but you might be trapped on it for seven hours first in blazing heat and forced to eat your seatmate.

No, Andrew Hacker is completely right. Algebra is a waste.

Sure, he notes earlier, "young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions.”

Frankly, I am not sure they should learn to read and write and do long division either. Why long division? You don’t even have to make change, these days. A machine will do it for you. I never learned long division. I learned something called number wrestling, where you had to study some numbers closely to see if they were obeying Title IX.

More to the point, have you ever used anything that you learned in school?

Many people fail math, but that is far from the only subject that many people fail. The answer is not to stop teaching algebra, but, really, to stop teaching. Physical education? Most of us will never leave our chairs. We ought to be learning relevant things, such as how to fart silently in an office that you share with just one other person.

Music? Even actual multiplatinum artists don’t know how to make music. Learn to sing? Figure out what those little doodly lines are supposed to indicate? All you need is Autotune, and you’re good to go.

Geography? Please. To know where Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan-stan is located is practically a political liability.

History? The more facts you actually know off the top of your head, the more the people around you suspect that you do not know how to work your iPhone. History is just a bunch of spoilers for the present. Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do learn history are doomed never to talk about it again in any conversation, ever.

Dead languages are dead. Old books are old. Don’t read “Hamlet.” You’ll spoil “The Lion King.”

Economics is (or is it “are”? Grammar proved hard for others, so it was not required of me) even less useful than math. The only thing you really need to learn is how to apologize to China for the delay in payment.

Foreign language? Just speak English more loudly, and others will understand.

Physics? That’s even less useful than critical reading. And given the intense popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” you can see what has happened to critical reading.

Spelling? Have you visited the Internet lately?

Science? It’s so subjective. Just memorize the phrase “I think there’s some controversy on that, and it’s against the tenets of my religion,” and you’ll never need to learn any science again.

“It’s clear that requiring algebra for everyone has not increased our appreciation of a calling someone once called ‘the poetry of the universe.’ How many college graduates,” asks Hacker, “remember what Fermat’s Dilemma was all about?”

Evidently not Hacker, since there is, to the best of my knowledge, no such thing as Fermat’s Dilemma. At any rate, I have never seen anyone call it anything besides Fermat’s Last Theorem. But perhaps I know too much algebra, and it has clouded my thinking. This would also explain why I am baffled by his suggestion that we teach math as a liberal art, like sculpture or ballet.

The answer to students’ failing math classes, as Hacker points out, is not to teach those classes more effectively or seek ways of bringing students up to a standard that is not only not impossible but attainable by Canadians. No. The answer is not to teach such classes any more. When your child has difficulty becoming potty-trained, you don’t try different methods of instruction. You give up. Diapers are plentiful, and who really needs to leave the house?

By  |  05:20 PM ET, 07/30/2012

Tags:  algebra

 
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