Monday, July 30, 2012

Algebra: X + Y = What?

Here's a thing from the New York Times. One thing I always think about headlines and titles is that they should very, very rarely be questions. If your reader can answer the question quickly, easily and definitively, the reader will not be a reader for you. That's fine if you just need page views. But if you want to actually persuade people with your persuasive essay, I would ding any editor who changes your headline to a question.

Because, when I see: "Is Algebra Necessary?" I think: Yes. Yes it is. I used algebra just yesterday; it is the building block for almost any replacement puzzle, code or cipher. It helps you find tips quickly, determine whether a sale price is really worth it or even analyze things like percent differences in estimates. It is one of the core building block of most higher mathematics, even the ones I don't know how to do!

So, yes. Algebra is necessary. The question also doesn't address the author's actual point. Which is: Is algebra necessary to be taught to American students, because they're all dumbos any way? Ok, the author puts it more kindly than that. But, that is the thrust of the essay. "People don't need algebra to live. Why, let's teach them other things instead!"

Here's the opening, though you should read the whole thing.
A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal?
We subject American students to this ordeal because we put people on the freaking moon. We wish to continue putting people on the freaking moon. I'm not an engineer; my knowledge of math is college level, on a good day. But you know what? When I don't get something? I go and study it. I've read Feynman's Six Easy Pieces, I don't remember everything, but I know where to go to re-learn what I've forgotten or never really knew.
Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent.
I believe the exact opposite; making math not mandatory is telling people: If you are not one of the few who get things intuitively, we as a country are willing to just sort of give up on you. I am not good at math; I had to work hard to learn what little I do. I'm also not one of those gifted people who just sits down and fires off an essay. I take time, and effort, to put things together. If teachers just gave up on me and kept telling me to aim lower and lower so I did not fail, I'd not be anywhere near where I am.

I took physics in high school; I did not do extremely well in that class. I also took AP biology; I did much better there. It was work; it was effort. It would have done no good if, when I was in seventh grade, they just said: "Well, he can't learn. So, let's shuffle him off to something else."

The author focuses on the fact that high schools are not graduating students. Graduating students who can't do slightly advanced math is almost as much a disservice to them as not graduating them at all. He wants us to teach kids "citizen statistics" when they can't even figure out something like 5+2Y=3Y. The CPI is also extremely complicated; one of the key ways to figure out if you should trust a given statistic requires some basic algebra. Does their solution make sense? Is it within their margin of error? How do we expect a kid having trouble with variables and exponents to reason through that?

All of this "quantitative reasoning" is things I was taught or learned throughout high school and college. I learned how to analyze numbers along with algebra. In fact, learning how to do algebra involved quantitative reasoning. It was a good way to check if your answer worked. Does the value I found make sense? You reason it backwards by looking at the scenario, the rules you know for math, or just the rules you know for the problem.
Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. 
Again, we get a kind of dirty feeling that the author is just throwing hands up in dismay and saying: "I give up." Let me tell you something: I learned some basic mathematics with counting bears and counting beans. I learned it from people without fancy computer programs or the most up-to-date, hundred dollar text books to teach me. We can teach the material; students can learn it. It is whether or not we have the moral will and courage to ensure that, as a nation, we are driving students to excel.

Or if we are content to say: "Algebra, eh? That's somebody else's problem."



One time we had a problem on a physics test. An elevator was falling, and we had to determine how fast the superhero needed to run to catch the elevator before it hit the ground. The answer the test wanted was how long it took the superhero to get from point A on the ground to under the elevator. But see, physics doesn't really work that way.

If the superhero caught it there, the people would still come to a sudden, screeching halt. They'd still be hurt or killed; the hero's five or six foot frame makes no difference after a drop of hundreds of feet. Plus, you'd have a squashed hero. No good for anyone. So, I reasoned, the superhero needed to fly up, catch the elevator before it got too fast and slow it down, with enough room so that the elevator slowed to a nice, easy landing.

This involved many triangles, acceleration and other measurements. I don't know if my answer was right, because I was told I over thought the problem. I disagreed, but whatever. It's not like anyone uses algebra in the real world.

Except every engineer who built everything ever.


  1. Awesome post, thank you 'Math' tag.
    Also, the P.S.-- totally hilarious.

  2. Anything to put a smile on people's faces!


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