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

By 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