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Informer: Age-old question: Why must we take algebra?

Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 2:57 PM

By Andrew Perzo / American Press

I took algebra 40 years ago, but I failed it in high school. So I had to take general math, and I passed.

Forty years later, I’ve been 21 years in the military and been to three different continents and I lived and worked in Las Vegas for 20 years and never had to use algebra. Also, I’ve talked to friends and relatives who had other jobs, and they never had to use algebra.

Now my grandson is taking algebra, and there is no purpose in it. Why do they still teach algebra?

In response to the question, Pat Deaville, the Calcasieu Parish school system’s director of high school curriculum, forwarded to The Informer three articles, along with a quotation from the book “Everything Bad is Good for You” by Steven Johnson.

“Learning algebra isn’t about acquiring a specific tool; it’s about building up a mental muscle that will come in handy elsewhere,” Johnson writes.

“You don’t go to the gym because you’re interested in learning how to operate a StairMaster; you go to the gym because operating a StairMaster does something laudable to your body, the benefits of which you enjoy during the many hours of the week when you’re not on a StairMaster.”

The three articles — from the education websites Purplemath, MathMedia and Math Goodies — offer variations of the same argument: Algebra, like science, grammar, history and literature, hones one’s mind, sharpening it and broadening it, and lays the foundation for a fuller, more prosperous life.

Alternative formula

A New York Times article written last summer asks a related question: Is algebra necessary? The writer, political scientist Andrew Hacker, concludes that the subject is more trouble than it’s worth for most students.

“A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra,” Hacker writes.

“In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.”

Algebra, Hacker says, isn’t as fundamental to most people’s lives or intellectual growth as proponents have suggested. And many students grow discouraged when faced with the rigors of the subject, Hacker says, and ultimately drop out of school.

“Of course, people should learn basic numerical skills: decimals, ratios and estimating, sharpened by a good grounding in arithmetic,” he writes. “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.”

Hacker proposes several alternatives to the current curriculum setup, including “citizen statistics,” which “would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.”

He suggests teaching students about the process the government uses to calculate the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation. And he recommends that math departments incorporate into curriculums the history and philosophy underpinning mathematics.

“Why not mathematics in art and music — even poetry — along with its role in assorted sciences?” Hacker writes.

“The aim would be to treat mathematics as a liberal art, making it as accessible and welcoming as sculpture or ballet. If we rethink how the discipline is conceived, word will get around and math enrollments are bound to rise. It can only help.”

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The Informer answers questions from readers each Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. It is researched and written by Andrew Perzo, an American Press staff writer. To ask a question, call 494-4098, press 5 and leave voice mail, or email

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