An Op-Ed titled ‘Is Algebra necessary’ is bound to provoke reaction. So, here I am, reacting to Andrew Hacker’s anti-algebra screed (New York Times, July 29th, 2012). It is a strange argument, one unsure of what it is attacking–mandatory math education, elementary algebra, higher algebra?–and one founded on an extremely dubious premise: that the way to carry out educational reform is to cherry pick your way through a curriculum, questioning the ‘utility’ of a particular component in case there are no jobs that require an exact application of its material. Hacker makes things worse by leaning on statistics that cry out for alternative explanations and pedagogical reform, rather than the ‘lets drop the subject students seem to have difficulty with’ approach that he favors. If American students are struggling with algebra, it might be time to inquire into how it is taught, to show students how abstraction and symbolic representation are key to understanding a modern world underwritten by science and technology. Dropping algebra seems like a profoundly misguided overreaction.
The ‘surrender in the face of poor test scores’ approach results in a series of bizarre statements of which the following are merely representative samples:
It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.
Certification programs for veterinary technicians require algebra, although none of the graduates I’ve met have ever used it in diagnosing or treating their patients. Medical schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins demand calculus of all their applicants, even if it doesn’t figure in the clinical curriculum, let alone in subsequent practice.
I have news for Hacker. There is little evidence that being able to leads to ‘more credible political opinions or social analysis’ either. Furthermore, if job skills are examined as superficially as Hacker does in his examples then it becomes all too easy to dismiss large parts of one’s educational background as being irrelevant. Hacker would be alarmed, I presume, to find out that even though modern physicists hardly ever roll balls down inclined planes, freshman physicists are still required to spend a semester solving problems that are full of problems that stress just that. Hacker dismisses the argument for a general education in mathematics with the alarmingly glib ‘It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion’ without stopping to inquire what that ‘mental exertion’ might consist of and what it might engender in turn. This is hardly an attitude toward pedagogical reform that breeds confidence.
It is a consequence of Hacker’s argument that the only students who should receive an education in algebra are those preparing for careers that require them to apply algebraic techniques and concepts in their jobs. Everyone else can be spared its ‘difficulties, ‘ like the above-mentioned abstraction and symbolic representation. How would an extension of this argument work in, say, fields like history or literature? A relentless whittling down of the curriculum would result, leaving us with a list of subjects read off the Help Wanted Ads section.
This is an impoverished, grimly utilitarian, and ultimately soulless view of education.