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Political Science Prof Asks: Is Algebra Necessary? 1010

Posted by samzenpus
from the no-math-for-you dept.
Capt.Albatross writes "Andrew Hacker, a professor of Political Science at the City University of New York and author of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It, attempts to answer this question in the negative in today's New York Times Sunday Review. His primary claim is that mathematics requirements are prematurely and unreasonably limiting the level of education available to otherwise capable students ."
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Political Science Prof Asks: Is Algebra Necessary?

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  • yes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by yagu (721525) * <yayagu@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:26PM (#40810515) Journal
    Yes!

    substitute in his thesis,

    Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white.

    and substitute to:

    History is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white.

    and you have a perfect argument for me and the school system not requiring History.

    Even better,

    $yourWorstSubject is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white.

    and we've eliminated the need for any required subjects.

    "I am not good at", or "I don't want to" are not good arguments for not requiring learnin'.

    (-e**(i*pi) st post)

    • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Missing.Matter (1845576) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:46PM (#40810733)
      Mathematics is a tool, but it's not a tool everyone uses to its fullest extent. In my high school, we teach all the way up to Calculus 2, and what percentage of the population actually uses that kind of mathematics? My Uncle, and cousins run a very successful business with revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars. My cousin is dyslexic and has terrible trouble reading and doing mathematics, but he's sitting pretty on a pile of cash and he's great at his job. Would he be better at his job if he knew how to integrate? Maybe.... but it's not necessary for him, which is what the article is asking.

      So by counterexample it's apparent not all mathematics is necessary for everyone... so I think these blanket answers I'm seeing floated around here by people who probably rely on mathematics daily for their jobs is a little short sighted.
      • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:59PM (#40810875)

        Mathematics is the language used to describe how the world around you works. At the very least you should understand the concepts of exponential growth and decay (which I think is algebra 2). Most people are going to have credit cards, 401ks, mortgages, car loans, etc. Knowing how these things work is the first step to financial success. I went through differential equations in college and honestly I can't recite off-hand the formulas for those things but I do understand how it works and could look up and calculate loan totals payoffs, monthly payments, etc.

        • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:55PM (#40811513)

          Screw that, it doesn't matter what algebra is good for.
          My 5th grade math teacher said this, math helps change the way you think. It doesn't seem like much, but you'll need that way of thinking in the future. And she was right.
          Advanced math, physics, chemistry, programming, anything that required even a bit of abstract thinking was easier because of those "useless" algebra classes.

          Are they perhaps trying to kill institutionalized education? If so, they're definitely on the right path.

          • Re:yes (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 29, 2012 @06:42PM (#40811979)
            For my own peace-of-mind, my own edification, and personal analyses, I have found a good knowledge of math and computer programming ( especially C++ and mathcad ) invaluable.

            But as far as advancement in a company is concerned, I found a knowledge of math to be a great impediment, as it causes me to stubbornly stick to things, be a "boy scout", "perfectionist" and other derogatory terms those with "leadership skills" attribute to me.

            I am a bit jaded, but it seems to me that the most important skills one can learn is the skill of how to get someone else to do the work.
          • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

            by zippthorne (748122) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @07:20PM (#40812349) Journal

            Are they perhaps trying to kill institutionalized education? If so, they're definitely on the right path.

            I don't think they want to kill the institutionalized part...

          • by wanax (46819) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @08:06PM (#40812729)

            Of course math changes the way you think, and often to the good. The real question, left unaddressed in the original article, is when and how do we start teaching math?

            There is a body of experimental evidence, mostly from upstate NY in the 20s and 30s (see [PDF] here [republicofmath.com]) that the main problem in early education is that math, with its many abstractions of notation and convention, is brought in far too early. Instead, rigorous verbal and written exercises could cover the necessary conceptual bases for math to be added onto later, while not losing huge amounts of time creating arti-factual stories to get 7-year-olds to learn division, which may then interfere with their later understanding of the actual basis.

            Another method that's been suggested, also with a body of experimental evidence (see for an overview [nytimes.com]), takes the opposite tack, and says okay, we can teach everything the first time in a way consistent with later fundamentals, but to do so, we have to recognize that many apparently simple steps are actually 5-7 'micro-steps' and we need to break out and teach these explicitly.

            Given that much more rigorous levels of math education don't seem to cause mass dropouts or lack of bachelors attainment in many other countries, I think the emphasis should be on fixing the way we teach math, rather than further devaluing (and yes, the ability to jump through hoops is important for successful employment.. and also, this guy thinks he can do rigorous statistical inference without a rock solid understanding of modern algebra?) high school and college degrees.

            • by ShakaUVM (157947) on Monday July 30, 2012 @02:04AM (#40814849) Homepage Journal

              >the main problem in early education is that math, with its many abstractions of notation and convention, is brought in far too early

              This is a myth from our child development overlords.

              My wife, who grew up in Hong Kong, was learning algebra in elementary school. Kids are capable of learning algebra much younger than it's taught here in America. When she immigrated, she literally didn't learn any new math for four years. It's not a mistake we're ranked so poorly in the world math standings.

              • by Aryden (1872756) on Monday July 30, 2012 @04:03AM (#40815391)
                My great-grandmother could do trig and calculus with a slide rule because that's what they taught her in primary school in the back woods of Tennessee. I think we are by far, less educated than our previous generations and it would be extremely detrimental to us to reduce the learning that students have to do today. When I moved to Georgia from Tennessee, the Georgia schools were 2 years behind in subject matter in the ADVANCED classes. There needs to be a national level of education in this country. I want to know that my daughter would learn the same subjects at the same level regardless of whether we lived in NY, TN, CA, OR or anywhere else.
        • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

          by nospam007 (722110) * on Sunday July 29, 2012 @07:01PM (#40812147)

          " Most people are going to have credit cards, 401ks, mortgages, car loans, etc. Knowing how these things work is the first step to financial success."

          Not to burst your bubble but this guy teaches future politicians and as you know they have no idea that they have to pay back any loans nor such things as 'interest' and other things.
          If you have to promise the moon to people to keep your job, knowing that you can't possibly pay for it is just a hindrance.

          • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Freultwah (739055) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @09:15PM (#40813253) Homepage
            Who modded this insightful? Studying political science is not about becoming a politician. There are few politicians among political scientists. (There are, of course, some notable exception, but they remain exceptions.) People with a PolSci education tend to become foreign policy analysts, journalists, civil servants and the like, or they stick around in the academia. Politicians mostly come from the ranks of economists and lawyers.
          • by perpenso (1613749) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @10:22PM (#40813683)

            Not to burst your bubble but this guy teaches future politicians ...

            No, he is a political science professor. The law professors teach the future politicians. The political science professors teach the entry level management trainees for various corporations.

            I am not kidding. I once sat in on a presentation named "Careers for History and Political Science Majors". The presenter had a BA in History and was the branch manager at a local bank. The first thing he told the audience was that they were not going to work in history or politics. Many corporations want to see a 4 year degree attached to their management trainees, they don't particularly care what the degree is in.

        • Re:yes (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 29, 2012 @08:04PM (#40812707)

          Calculus measures the rate of change. IMO, if you don't know how to use calculus, you are unable and unqualified to argue the merits of arguments on Economics, global warming, unemployment, air pollution, groundwater pollution, and thousands of other concerns. Those people who are unable to argue sensibly and knowlageably still have opinions, but those opinions are without merit. Those same people are at the mercy of opinion-makers of questionable integrity.

          Perhaps the proper place for Calculus is in high school, and your school is a possible exemplar. However, it most likely that Calculus is taught only to a select few, and the rest of the high school population is graduated ignorant. IMO, Propositional Logic and Rhetoric should also be taught.

          Algebra is a prerequisite for Calculus, but not everyone understands Mathematics in the way that Algebra expresses it. Almost all mathematical principles can be described in either Arithimetic, Geometric, or Algebraic terms. Assume that some people count, some people visualize, and others like "recipes". At the very least, graduates should be able to describe mathematical concepts in their preferred method, and to be able to recognize those concepts when described in other thinking styles.

          The original article is prima facie evidence that even PhD's are not immune to lousy thinking practices. I would be more impressed with the argument if I thought that Hacker actually understood Mathematics. The reason is that I usually divide people who are into "Political Science" into three major categories:

          At one extreme is the "Political Philosopher" who theorizes about the "best" forms of political action.
          At the other extreme is the "Political Technician" who concentrates the means of obtaining thier "preferred" political situation.
          Sandwiched in the middle is a narrow band of real "Political Scientists" who try to understand the principles behind politics and derive principles that predict the outcomes of various actions. Although these people are hamperred by lack of a "laboratory" in which to conduct experiments and control variables, they have tools such as Logic and Mathematics, particularly Calculus and Statistics, that they can use to evaluate different political actions.

          Hacker comes across as a "Technician" and gets a discount on credibility from me.

        • by Roger W Moore (538166) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @08:34PM (#40812929) Journal

          Mathematics is the language used to describe how the world around you works.

          I'd go further. It used to be that in the UK everyone going to university had to have a maths O'level which required _simple_ calculus. After all if I had to study Shakespeare before I could do a physics degree shouldn't those studying english study the basic maths developed by Newton to describe the same world that Shakespeare described with his plays?

        • Re:yes (Score:4, Interesting)

          by NJRoadfan (1254248) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @09:16PM (#40813265)
          My high school had an elective course called "Math for Living" that taught everyday uses of math like the above examples, no Calculus needed.
      • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

        by larry bagina (561269) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:01PM (#40810889) Journal
        All mathematics? No. But math (including algebra) isn't just making sure you give the correct change in your menial fast-food cashier job, it's problem solving. And that doesn't exist (certainly not to the same degree) in other subjects.
        • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

          by JDAustin (468180) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:23PM (#40811147)

          If problem solving is the goal, then your better served by a Logic/Critical Thinking class then Algebra.

          • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

            by countach74 (2484150) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:32PM (#40811239)
            Logic/critical thinking very much tie in to Algebra and vice versa. It seems strange to me to present one without the other. Yet it seems logic/critical thinking classes are very rare in contrast to Algebra.
            • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

              by superwiz (655733) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @06:18PM (#40811751) Journal
              "Critical thinking" is a waste of time. In fact, it's worse. It's a negative expenditure of time. Before you decide to pick an argument with me, be warned: I have a PhD in math... not throwing it out as a "shut up" bona fides, but rather to thwart the "you don't know what you are talking about" sea of trolls. I've had actual barred lawyers trying to convince me that they understood logic simply because they took critical thinking. It gives students confidence that they can question every argument... even a solidly proven one. They have no concept of probability, so it useless to argue likely vs known vs unknown vs unlikely with them. One need remember the full probability course to understand what is a correlation and why it doesn't imply causation. But then a critical thinking students is unlikely to understand what is an implication.
        • Re:yes (Score:5, Informative)

          by Smallpond (221300) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:59PM (#40811563) Homepage Journal

          I haven't seen a cashier with any math skills in quite a while. In fact, if you really want to screw them up give them the extra penny. I had a chat with a cashier when the customer in front of me did that after she had rung up a payment of $10.00 and was unable to deal with being handed $10.01 (for a purchase of $9.51). She felt very abused about not being able to calculate the right change in her head. As far as I can tell, the cash register is in charge. She felt her job was to do whatever the cash register told her to do.

      • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Yvanhoe (564877) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:02PM (#40810901) Journal
        Anyone not understanding what an exponential is does not have a good enough understanding of demographics to make a fully informed decision about making babies and should not be authorized to take a loan.
        • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

          by microbox (704317) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:28PM (#40811205)

          Anyone not understanding what an exponential

          Anyone not understanding what an exponential is should NOT be making policy decisions at all. Period.

          A very sad fact.

          • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

            by countach74 (2484150) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:33PM (#40811265)
            Indeed. Unfortunately, power hungry people who are actually not good at real world things jump into politics instead. In other words, we end up with a bunch of retarded ass holes running our nation. What a bunch of fuckers.
            • Re:yes (Score:5, Funny)

              by Nixoloco (675549) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @06:37PM (#40811929)

              Indeed. Unfortunately, power hungry people who are actually not good at real world things jump into politics instead. In other words, we end up with a bunch of retarded ass holes running our nation. What a bunch of fuckers.

              So power hungry people need to understand powers!

      • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:08PM (#40810965)

        How many people use a substantial fraction of their high school education in their working life?

        The purpose of a high school education is to enable a person to be able to be able to think and be able to have an intelligent conversation. It is not specialization nor is it designed to train someone how to perform a specific job. Math, arts, science, history, music, language, writing, civics, etc., all play a part. A person with a well rounded education is a person who can make useful judgements as a citizen.

        High school doesn't prepare people to be salesmen, barbers, engineers, doctors, receptionists, or mechanics. Each of those fields will have specific training. High school only makes it possible that once you do enter one of those fields that you can do so as an intelligent citizen.

        Is this worth it? Some developed societies separate their education systems half-way through high school into a vocational and college prep line because they want to use high school to prepare their citizens for a job. They choose specialization over breadth. It has been argued that this stifles creativity. Math and science scores are nice on paper to show off your education system, but perhaps the true measure is how creative your students are. Everyone is going to specialize after leaving high school, but the well rounded students who might be a step behind on specialization will be two steps ahead with creativity.

        • Re:yes (Score:4, Informative)

          by mjwx (966435) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @07:56PM (#40812631)

          How many people use a substantial fraction of their high school education in their working life?

          The purpose of a high school education is to enable a person to be able to be able to think and be able to have an intelligent conversation. It is not specialization nor is it designed to train someone how to perform a specific job. Math, arts, science, history, music, language, writing, civics, etc., all play a part. A person with a well rounded education is a person who can make useful judgements as a citizen.

          High school doesn't prepare people to be salesmen, barbers, engineers, doctors, receptionists, or mechanics. Each of those fields will have specific training. High school only makes it possible that once you do enter one of those fields that you can do so as an intelligent citizen.

          I use a shitload of science and maths in my daily job, most of it learned in high school. If it weren't for high school, I would not have the prerequisite knowledge necessary to become a network engineer. This may not be true in your country, but High School in Australia does allow one to become specialised, you have four core subjects everyone must take (English, Maths, Science and Social Studies) and in the final two years, Science and Social Studies become optional, you can choose to do history or biology but you aren't forced to.

          As for algebra itself. Who uses that in real life eh,

          No one needs to figure out how many litres of petrol they'll get for $20. Yep, we never use algebra in real life.

      • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ThePhilips (752041) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:09PM (#40810985) Homepage Journal

        Mathematics is a tool, [...]

        ... to develop your brain.

        Math isn't factual or learnable per se - studying math to your brain is what jogging is to your body.

        ... so I think these blanket answers I'm seeing floated around here by people who probably rely on mathematics daily for their jobs is a little short sighted.

        Very very small share of people does the theoretical math. Most people do applied math and most of the time using specialized software.

        I have used math last time god knows how many years ago and personally no huge fan of it. Yet, I'm still very grateful and that I had the math. For it taught me the analytical thinking, it taught me how to find the way to dismantle large problems into smaller ones, it taught how to deal with ambiguities and so on.

        Math stands apart from the rest of the subjects because it is sole pure abstract one. It is the only subject which was created 100% by humans. Yet, since it relates in no way to the outside world, it is also the most unnatural for our brain to learn.

        Instead of all the flames, probably a healthy discussion on how to better teach the math would be more productive?

      • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

        by kubernet3s (1954672) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:15PM (#40811049)
        Really now. This presupposes that the point of education is to provide students with things they will "use." If this were the case, why not just send students to trade school? No one really "needs" to learn how to read anything more advanced than a children's book, especially if they're a carpenter or plumber. You don't need to know history, you don't need to know anything, really, except what your job is. Except the point of creating an educated populace isn't to provide students with tools they will always use every day, but to extend their perception of the world in a way which allows them to engage in it effectively. A poor understanding of science is what makes people object to the "theory" of evolution, a poor understanding of math is why phony quantum mechanics treatises fly off the shelf, and a poor understanding of history makes people believe that the Northern US didn't practice slavery, that the declaration of independence was the founding document of our country, and that cavemen rode on dinosaurs.

        No, the point of educating people is not so that, one day, they will go "aha!" and use their knowledge of geometric series or the battle of Gettysburg to found a company and make a million dollars, but to ensure that the constituents of the very influential body politic (in a democratic society) are capable of interacting effectively with their world. While you will never be asked to solve for X in your daily life, you will likely be asked to apply similar concepts, and you will definitely be asked to use your knowledge of, for example, plotting of functions, to understand things like graphs which are presented to the public by the media in ways which are either unintuitive or outright deceptive.

        The same arguments in the TFA could easily have been applied, in an earlier time, to literacy: there are historically plenty of people who lived long, happy lives who never knew how to read. However, it is essential in today's society, because our commitment to a literate society has gone hand in hand with out commitment to an advanced society capable of effective and efficient engagement and contribution to the experience and knowledge of our collective self. Mathematical literacy, of an increasingly advanced degree, is a similar requisite in the modern society, where the sheer amount of information available grows larger and more formidable every day. In such a time, it is the duty of us as a community to ensure all persons are capable of effectively interacting with and utilizing this information. To do less, simply because the individuals prove recalcitrant, or might find ways to ignore our information rich society, is to condemn ourselves to mean regions of social existence, consciousness, and ultimately human experience.
    • Re:yes (Score:5, Interesting)

      by stephanruby (542433) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:25PM (#40811161)

      Also this New York Times article seems to be intentionally misleading.

      He keeps on mentioning algebra repeatedly, and says that his question applies more broadly to "geometry through calculus", not just algebra. But then most of his examples are calculus-level or pre-calculus level.

      And then, he takes a quick jab at University Legacy admission programs and Athletes admission programs, which have much lower Math admission standards, (which I completely agree with), but then he completely forgets to mention Affirmative Action which basically does the same thing and the special Summer/Spring/Transfer admission University programs which also admit students with much lower Math SAT scores (as a way to avoid including those scores in their main official published advertised statistics).

  • by GodGell (897123) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:29PM (#40810535) Homepage

    NO.

    It's the unintuitive ways in which it's taught (which in turn causes the societal alienation of the subject) that is the problem, not the fact that it's a requirement.

    Mathematics is nothing less than the upmost tool of rationality. Lose it, and all progress decays.

    • by harvey the nerd (582806) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:48PM (#40810753)
      "Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe and not make messes in the house."
    • by Guy Harris (3803) <guy@alum.mit.edu> on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:03PM (#40810909)

      NO.

      It's the unintuitive ways in which it's taught (which in turn causes the societal alienation of the subject) that is the problem, not the fact that it's a requirement.

      Mathematics is nothing less than the upmost tool of rationality. Lose it, and all progress decays.

      Yeah. Somebody should point Prof. Hacker to this essay [nytimes.com], in which the writer states that

      Peter Braunfeld of the University of Illinois tells his students, “Our civilization would collapse without mathematics.” He’s absolutely right.

      Algebraic algorithms underpin animated movies, investment strategies and airline ticket prices. And we need people to understand how those things work and to advance our frontiers.

      Quantitative literacy clearly is useful in weighing all manner of public policies, from the Affordable Care Act, to the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, to the impact of climate change. Being able to detect and identify ideology at work behind the numbers is of obvious use. Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship.

      Perhaps if he were to read that, he'd change his mind. :-)

      (Shorter me: "You did RTFA, right? If not, please do so before ascribing to Prof. Hacker opinions he does not hold.")

    • by aaronb1138 (2035478) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:34PM (#40811273)

      Exactly THIS. The way higher levels of math are currently taught and in particular the lack of true relation to practical problem solving is a huge issue.

      I have seen a few professors and textbooks which remedy this great problem. Probably at the top of the list is Morris Kline. His Mathematics for Non-mathematicians (or Liberal Arts Majors) textbook, its language, and approach are a perfect template for better broad discourse on mathematics to non-STEM majors. Even his Calculus text better relates the importance of concept and understanding far better than the current popular books by Thomas, Tan, and Stewart (though the latter two books are both mere knockoffs of Thomas' book, made popular to obsolete Thomas' skus). Consider that I am a STEM major, in Physics, and all of my courses within the department manage to relate skills and knowledge in vastly more useful manners and with little abstract ambiguity.

      Calculus and Chemistry seem to be the most popular courses Universities use as "weeding" courses. The observed problem every time is teaching in overly abstract terms and with little relation to useful problem solving approaches in the subject matter. Anytime a professor offers an outside of class time "problem solving" session shortly prior to a test, they are letting you know they failed to teach all of the problem solving skills and especially never related practical knowledge. While I can appreciate the dedication it demonstrates on the part of the professor, they should be doing their jobs and putting it in the classroom to begin with.

    • by mdmkolbe (944892) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:35PM (#40811283)

      It's the unintuitive ways in which it's taught ... that is the problem

      Lockhart put this quite elegantly in his A Mathematician's Lament [maa.org]. Treating math as a rote subject (as it is now) is the moral equivalent teaching art as paint by numbers.

  • by Revotron (1115029) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:30PM (#40810545)
    I'm pretty sure if I wrote that paper, the resulting Slashdot headline would be "Engineer Asks: Is Political Science Necessary?"
  • by zero.kalvin (1231372) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:32PM (#40810559)
    The point is not learning how to do complex calculation, the point is by learning these mathematical subjects you develop certain skills in logic, problem solving , and in critical thinking. It goes beyond mathematics and to how to be a rational thinker ( and yes I am exaggerating a bit ).
    • by Revotron (1115029) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:34PM (#40810575)
      I'd be wary bringing up the notion of "rational thought" in the presence of a PolySci professor. I hear they find that idea quite revolting.
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      And if nothing else, you learn that some things are hard and the people who work to master them are worthy of respect. Except this guy seems to have missed all of those lessons. Maybe he somehow dodged out of required math?

    • There are other ways to teach problem solving, logic, and critical thinking that don't include mathematics. Math can be a very abstract concept, and while it's embedded in most everything, the concepts are abstracted in a way that makes sense to people even if they don't realize they're learning calculus or factorization. The author of the article is asking if teaching raw math is really necessary, as most people get so frustrated with it they just give up entirely.

      Critical thinking, logic, and problem s
    • by elashish14 (1302231) <profcalc4@gmail.3.1415926com minus pi> on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:10PM (#40810991)

      No exaggeration at all, this is completely true! The author himself states that he's not in favor of ruling out quantitative reasoning, which he considers important. The fact that the thinks algebra isn't an important component of this skill only shows how ignorant he is of mathematics (why he's given his soapbox in light of this is only more concerning, but I digress).

      Algebra builds an understanding of abstract and unknown concepts. You can train students to do quantitative reasoning problems like machines, but algebra is much more abstract, but then you can throw them a curveball and they'll be totally hopeless. You end up with situations where students can solve problems like 'how much should 3 apples cost if one costs 1$' and then they won't be able to solve things like 'if you have 5$, how many apples can you buy?' We have freaking tip calculators on our phones because we're too lazy to learn that all you have to do is slide the decimal over, round to a convenient number and double it. Is that really so hard?

      No, the problem isn't the subject - it's the students. Get over the fact that you have to learn things that you don't like. I feel like all the time I spent on my humanities subjects in secondary school and college were thoroughly wasted as well, but I put up with it because I had to. I fell off the honor roll when I was 12 because I got straight A's and a B in Art. Art for Christ's sake! Pardon me if I suck at using a pair of scissors! I guess that's what should hold me back from being recognized in my math and science achievements, right?

      I'm not gonna stand here and suggest that I never complained about it, but at the same time, I went into that class every day fighting for my life because I knew that was the one thing standing in the way of my being recognized as a good scholar. So ultimately I didn't reach my goal, but at least I can say that I tried as hard as i could. I don't make excuses. The problem is that nowadays we have a problem telling kids to suck it up and deal with it. Math is a requirement - deal with it. I'm not gonna get a damn thing out of reading Dante's Inferno, or buillshitting about character development and relationships in Dickens, but do it because I must. Kids (and their parents) seem to not accept that as a reason nowadays.

      Maybe alongside with learning algebra (or whatever subject trips you up), we should learn to accept that not eveything's gonna be easy in life and that we shouldn't make excuses and just blame ourselves instead.

      And before I forget, obligatory xkcd: http://xkcd.com/1050/ [xkcd.com]

      And also before I forget, not only should algebra be mandatory, but statistics should as well.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:34PM (#40810569)

    The article's author should be penalized for pointing out the unemployment rates for hard sciences graduates with no comparison to the corresponding rates for liberal arts majors.

  • by hxnwix (652290) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:35PM (#40810583) Journal

    If you want to understand the world, you need math. If your education doesn't include that, what sort of education is it?

    • How much math? And the world also includes laws, bankers, lawyers, notary publics, etc. Sure, we can teach l'Hopital's rule in high school, but can we also please teach the social realities that can have much more of an impact in everyday life than math?
    • by Missing.Matter (1845576) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:59PM (#40810871)
      I think it's a bit presumptuous to claim those who do not know math are incapable of understanding the world. The level of mathematics taught in high school is the smallest shrivel of the scope of the mathematics field. You don't really start getting into the core of the subject until the graduate level. So are you saying anyone without a graduate level of education in mathematic is unable to understand the world? Or perhaps you think only a highschool level of educate is necessary to understand the world?

      And how exactly do you define the world? The world is vast, and we can probably define and describe less than 1% of all we know with mathematical formulas. What about poets, artists, authors... do they not understand the world? I can't tell you the last time I read an equation that elicited more emotion than Whitman or Frost. So maybe it's apt to say those who do not understand love or nature or poetry or biology do not understand the world.
  • by EnglishTim (9662) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:36PM (#40810591)

    ... is High School necessary?

    • by fustakrakich (1673220) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:42PM (#40810675) Journal

      Emo prof asks: Is anything necessary?

    • by vlm (69642) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:57PM (#40810847)

      ... is High School necessary?

      The high school reunion industrial complex, as one of the few remaining vibrant industries in America, so its been declared "too big to fail" so we can't get rid of H.S.

      Interestingly the reunion industrial complex is failing due to facebook... Why do you need a retro-cover-band and a rented hall to find out whats new, when every one who cares about such things, already knows from facebook.

      My learning almost completely stopped in H.S.... its curriculum moves too slow. Made a very painful impact when I suddenly had to start learning again at university. Whoa, I haven't studied since middle school, WTF? You mean I have to read the book now?

  • by nicolastheadept (930317) <<ku.gro.nrefder> <ta> <kcin>> on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:39PM (#40810639)
    Perhaps it would be better to move away from graduation based on everything together, to passes in individual subjects? Allow pupils to excel in the areas they can.
    • by EdIII (1114411) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:20PM (#40811107)

      I agree to a point. General education is useful to provide a well rounded education. Sometime in the teen years you can start allowing children to specialize, which is something adults do anyways. Heck, even our brains do it, unless I am wrong about my limited understanding of neuroscience.

      The value in math is not what you can do with it. Highest math courses I passed were Calculus and I never went on to anything else in college. To this day I don't use very high level math, the standard deviation equation being a notable exception. I just don't need an absolute ton of math to be programming and administrating the systems that I do. I know there is a *huge* amount of math involved in the platforms that I am using, but I'm working at a much higher level of abstraction and can just use a math class or plugin where required.

      The true value of math is learning critical thinking skills and logic. While only a very small percentage of students will ever use it daily, 100% could be benefiting from the critical thinking skills and logic.

      Regardless of specialization, those skills need to be taught. Could there be a better way than pure math? Perhaps.

  • Flamebait Headline (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Missing.Matter (1845576) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:39PM (#40810643)
    The summary and headline seem to imply that the professor is questioning whether algebra/mathematics is necessary for anyone, but really he's asking if it's necessary for everyone. I have a degree in physics and computer engineering and I personally benefit tremendously from mathematics. But pretty much everyone I know (outside of my comp sci/phsyics friends) is terrible at math, and never use anything except simple calculations in their daily lives, and they get by just fine in their professions. Yes, they do a lot of math without being very aware of it, but they don't need to know the extent of the theory, and they aren't what I would consider especially proficient, which is what highschool at least aims to make you.

    The professor in the article is asking something completely different and reasonable: since everyone is different, and everyone has a set of proficiencies and aptitudes, why do we try to teach everything a set of knowledge someone somewhere has somehow determined to be paramount? What if everyone's talent was fostered at a young age instead of forcing them to neglect their proficiencies and learn skills which perhaps they will never use? Would we end up with a society where everyone was an expert at something, rather than a society where everyone has a little knowledge everywhere but no real spectacular skill?

    I don't know the answer to any of these questions, but really, I think they're worth considering. I for one was fostered at a young age because my parents identified that I was good at science and math, and I benefited tremendously. I could only imagine if that kind of fostering was afforded to every child, we might be better off.
  • by 50000BTU_barbecue (588132) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:41PM (#40810659) Homepage Journal

    There is so much missing from high school and post high school education. I'm from Quebec so the system is a bit different, you go to CEGEP between high school and university here. Anyways, nobody learns about how the society works here. We need young people to learn about the Civil Code, how contracts work, how renting works, how buying real estate works. Nothing in depth, but at least a functional knowledge so you don't walk into bad situations.

    Am I making sense? We are focusing on things that are easy to teach like piles of math. Things that are complex and can create aware citizens seems to interest the system less.

  • Oblig xkcd (Score:5, Funny)

    by Revotron (1115029) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:41PM (#40810661)
    • Re:Oblig xkcd (Score:4, Insightful)

      by supercrisp (936036) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:19PM (#40811095)
      That old sort of joke says more about its author and those who think it's funny than it does about the humanities. Yes, there's some BS. But, having worked in the science and now being a humanities professor, I can tell you that there's BS in both. It's just that people tend to think they can or should be able to master the humanities, to, for example, walk up to a sculpture and appreciate what it's about. But sculptors tend to reference other scultors they like, shapes call out to other shapes, materials to materials and traditions of working them, etc. etc.. Certainly there was a fat wodge of bullshit in 80s decon. But that's because it was HARD and poseurs could hide out in that hardness, chatting with one another about the emperor's new Member's Only jacket. And there's been bullshit in every era of the humanities, but most often what is derided as the work of a dunce is really good stuff that just happened to be inimical to the received opinions of its day.
  • Yup. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:42PM (#40810679)

    Most students do not really understand mathematics anyway, they simply memorize equations and techniques. Why should students who can't manage that be barred from the higher levels in other courses?

  • by mikael (484) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:44PM (#40810715)

    Algebra is a subset of mathematics, and forms the basis for statistics. Statistical analysis is required in just about every science field as well as arts. Social studies and biology require analysis of population dynamics; geology and geography require understanding of hydrodynamic equations. Psychology requires statistical analysis in many different ways. There's even a mathematical package called SPSS - Statistical Package for the Social Sciences. Even history will require the use of probabilty analysis to determine the most likely chain of events.

  • Political Science Prof Asks: Is Algebra Necessary?

    That's Political Science.

  • by Above (100351) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:51PM (#40810797)

    If you've been in any large business you realize that it operates primarily on Excel spreadsheets being repeatedly e-mailed back and forth. While many of the folks creating these spreadsheets don't even realize it, each of the cells are little algebraic equations. People often ask "what from math class do you use every day", well algebra is an easy one, people write business formulas in Excel.

  • Short answer: yes. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by n5vb (587569) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @04:59PM (#40810869)

    Longer answer:

    The fact that anyone felt the need to ask this question says to me that we're doing education wrong in the USA. Very wrong. Fundamentally wrong. Yes, algebra is necessary, possibly more necessary than any other branch of math, because there are so many other fundamentally useful concepts wrapped up in it -- formal logic, proof, and a whole bunch of other basic building blocks of epistemology, not just mathematics -- that IMHO it's crucial to teaching students to think and reason answers and not just churn them out by rote memorization the way they do with arithmetic .. the way we're currently teaching it.

    But why are we approaching the subject as though it's something "hard" that we have to "work" to learn and then question whether the effort is necessary? The only reason we have that view of it is that by the time our kids hit algebra, they've had all the curiosity and fascination for new knowledge hammered out of them, by normalizing their curriculum to death assembly-line style. Arithmetic by addition and multiplication tables and memorization is boring, mind-numbingly so, and any kid who gets through that gauntlet and is still interested in algebra didn't learn his/her math in the classroom, they learned it by exploring and playing around with it and getting a feel for number theory and how arithmetic operators work .. you know, real math, the kind that gets the imagination flowing.

    And if you haven't had curiosity crushed out of you by memorization drills, algebra is fascinating. If you're teaching it right and letting the math itself do the teaching, you'd be hard pressed to stop kids from learning it. Case in point: In my 6th grade math class, a "substitute" (who I'm fairly sure was actually an education researcher experimenting with math teaching methods, but "substitute" was what they called him) came into the class, which was starting on basic algebra, and taught us what turned out to be differentiation by the power rule. I ended up using that one method in every math class I had from then on -- much to the consternation of my teachers who weren't quite sure how to deal with me doing differential calculus on high school algebra tests -- but I also ended up exploring how polynomials went through simpler and simpler derivatives until they ended up as a constant, and then zero, and gained a whole new appreciation for how they worked, and later on, integration and the fundamental theorem of calculus just sort of fell into place. The power rule is still one of my old friends when it comes to math. But I have that "substitute" to thank for most of the algebra I learned on my own because I couldn't get enough of it -- that one little seed sparked a whole adventure that continued to teach me mathematics for decades afterward.

    Granted, I'm a hardcore nerd in a lot of ways, but I'm not entirely sure that's an aspect of who I am and not just an artifact of a society raised on the "math is hard" meme. It's hard, yes, but it's irresistible to a curious mind, and we're all born curious .. it's how we bootstrap every bit of knowledge we gain firsthand about the world. If we stop killing it in the schools, give it a few generations and our PolySci professors wouldn't even think to ask this question..

  • by supercrisp (936036) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:14PM (#40811033)
    And I use algebra constantly. And knowledge of algebra is necessary for my spreadsheet grade books. And geometric proofs gave me some of the most pleasurable homework/classroom experiences in my K-12 education. I honestly don't think it hurts anyone, everyone, to learn algebra. Maybe calculus is taking it a bit far for _everyone_, but not everyone even takes algebra, so this guy is basically doing the high-brow version of trolling. If anything, I'd say we need MORE math, but of a simpler, more applied variety, like calculating compound interest, household budgets, calories, bills, and so on. But the need for more simple stuff doesn't mean we don't want people to at least have a taste of higher abstract thought and fricking reasoning. God knows, we could do with more reasoning.
  • by bdwoolman (561635) on Sunday July 29, 2012 @05:44PM (#40811401) Homepage

    He has gotten a few minutes of glory by killing a sacred cow. In this case The-Math-Is-Vital to-Higher-Education cow. The cow is sacred because it is a good and right cow. An all-the-way-down cow. It is so easy to make a name for yourself by taking contrary positions -- especially if they are outrageous. This specious argument was born to be reported on Cable News. Or *"cough* on Slashdot. Of course these pay-as-you-go degree mills would like to have more customers. So let's just change these ridiculous standards. This guy has an agenda.

    Here is my next book? "The Reading Railroad. Speak Don't Write." The summary: With the advent of text to speech and audio recording reading and writing is an unneeded barrier to many otherwise smart people getting PH.Ds. As long as they can get a student loan they can get a doctorate.

    "Here. Let me help you with that wordy loan application."

    The brain is a mathematical engine. When you catch a fly ball you are solving a differential equation. Intuitively. When you gauge the speed of an oncoming car to cross the street that is Algebra. Hell, even dogs can do it. Sometimes. Mathematics when taught elegantly is interesting. It is a critical structure for the first of the two main components of Education: 1) The Discipline of the Mind (The ability to think) The other being 2) The Furniture of The Mind (Knowledge). Learning a second language, doing mathematics, reading music, writing computer code are all mental disciplines that require a disciplined mind. Knowledge without mental discipline is furniture without a room.

  • by itchybrain (2538928) * on Sunday July 29, 2012 @09:20PM (#40813305)
    Actually found this on snorgtees.com:

    "Dear Algebra,
    Stop asking us to find your X.
    She's not coming back"

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