Is anything necessary?

(In response to the NYT article “Is Algebra Necessary“)

I am disturbed by how frequently I see opinion pieces advocating that we teach different “useful” math in school, or teach less math, or just not make math a requirement at all. I want to figure out the objection to having math requirements.

1. It is not useful

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.

Do they also have an analysis about what percent of entry-level workers will need to know who won which battle in the Civil War? Or how many will need to know how to play volleyball or run a mile? How about the percent that need to know the plot of Of Mice and Men? Ah, that’s right. Probably nothing learned in high school is exactly useful.

2. It is hard
The argument is that many drop out of high school and college because* they have difficulty fulfilling math requirements. So, the answer is to either get rid of such requirements, or replace the difficult math requirements with “useful” math. But the reason we require algebra isn’t to ensure that the workforce knows the quadratic equation. While knowing algebra doesn’t necessarily prove that a person is capable of abstract, logical thought, a complete inability to do algebra probably screens out people who do not belong in college. Why not find out sooner than later that you are not college material? It is hard, but that’s why we require it.

3. Teach something else
There’s a suggestion about teaching an alternative, easier math called “citizen statistics.” This more practical math would be easier and more generally useful. Trouble is, the one example given, “teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed” involves algebra. In general, it is not clear whether other math courses would actually be easier for students and also confer the same filtering benefits mentioned in 2.

This continual questioning of whether we should teach math and have math requirements in higher education is a result of our society’s allergy to math. What needs to change is the attitude that “I’m really bad at math” is an acceptable quirk for a well-educated person. We need to be as ashamed to announce that as we would be to say “I am barely literate.”

* It is not clear that this is a causal relationship

2 thoughts on “Is anything necessary?

  1. I’m stunned by that New York Times article. All the knowledge from high school that remains useful to me required a firm grasp of algebra: economics, physics, statistics, symbolic logic…

    How can we as a democratic society function if voters don’t understand economics?

    Why do we allow people with nothing more than an intuitive understanding of mass and acceleration drive two tons of steel and aluminum down public streets filled with pedestrians?


    1. Truth be told, I’m not sure *I* understand economics. I’d love to know why we let politicians (without math/education degrees) have control over what is taught in the math curricula? Shouldn’t we defer to experts? None of them advocate lower standards…


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