July 30, 2012 | 63
In an opinion piece for the New York Times on Sunday, political science professor Andrew Hacker asks, “Is Algebra Necessary?” and answers, “No.” It’s not just algebra: geometry and calculus are on the chopping block, too. It’s not that he doesn’t think math is important; he wants the traditional sequence to be replaced by a general “quantitative skills” class, and perhaps some statistics.
There are so many problems with Hacker’s essay that it’s hard to know where to start. Hacker’s first main point is that math is difficult, and the poor grades that result prevent too many people from graduating high school or college. His second is that the math we learn is not the math we need in our jobs.
Math certainly is incomprehensible to many students, but from where I sit, poor teaching is often the reason. Math education is failing many of our students. Few pre-college math teachers majored or even minored in math, and until more teachers do, improvements will be hard to come by. Ironically, it seems that people who have mastered “useless” algebra and other higher math topics tend to get jobs that pay more than middle school math teachers earn. I have the utmost respect for people with math degrees who choose to teach in spite of the poor pay and discipline problems, but few people make that choice. Math education needs help, but Hacker’s suggestions throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What is algebra anyway? It’s a huge subject, but at its heart, it’s about relationships. How does a change in one quantity affect another quantity when they are related in a certain way? Hacker suggests that we need arithmetic but don’t need algebra. But it’s really difficult to separate these two skills. Algebra and geometry, another subject Hacker could do without, help develop logical skills and abstract reasoning so we can understand why we are making less money than before if we get a 20 percent pay cut followed by a 20 percent raise (or a 20 percent raise followed by a 20 percent pay cut—hello, commutative law of multiplication!) or how much merchandise we can purchase if we have $100 and a 25 percent off coupon.
Hacker is probably right that very few people use high-level math directly in their work. My work never requires me to know anything about the themes of “The Old Man and the Sea,” but my life would not be as rich if I had never been exposed to great literature and the challenge of analyzing and understanding it, as difficult as it was, and still is, for me. When I was in high school, I didn’t (and couldn’t) know whether my future job would require math, chemistry, writing or music. If I had stopped taking every subject that I probably wouldn’t use in my career, I don’t know what classes would have been left.
Hacker says that math is required in many professions “just to look rigorous,” as “a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.” But what if it’s not just because it sounds good? What if medical schools know that calculus is not needed in a doctor’s day-to-day practice, but that the skills she learns when taking it, including perseverance in the face of a difficult subject, make her better at understanding and responding to the flood of information she encounters in her work?
Mathematicians are recruited by hedge funds, consulting firms, and technology companies not because they already know how to balance portfolios, what the best corporate strategies are, or how to optimize user interfaces, but because their mathematics degrees indicate experience and acuity at problem solving. It’s easier for companies to teach someone with a strong mathematics background how to do their specific work than to teach someone who knows the company business how to solve problems. And, like it or not, algebra is one of the first places students start to learn these problem solving skills.
Hacker acknowledges that math is important. It underlies technology and science that we use every day, and there is and will continue to be a need for mathematically able people in lots of professions. Eliminating abstract math education in the early school years, or allowing young students to opt out of rigorous math classes, will only serve to increase the disparity between those who “get it” and those who don’t. Those who have a grasp of mathematics will have many career paths open to them that will be closed to those who have avoided it.
Math education needs to improve, but if illiteracy were on the rise, I don’t think we’d be talking about eliminating reading from the curriculum.