Post Columnist: You Don’t Need Algebra, Just Accept You’re Stupid

Every once in a while someone in this town will say something so monumentally stupid that it takes a few days of staring at it to make any sense of it whatsoever, and Richard Cohen’s column last Thursday is one of them. In his column he asserts that no one really ever needs Algebra, it’s just something we force on kids to “make them smarter,” only Cohen says:

You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know — never mind want to know — how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later — or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note — or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

Oh. My. God.

Please tell me you’re kidding? Seriously? More below the cut.

Because if that’s your reasoning, you shouldn’t ever have to read a novel in English class, take Physics, take Chemistry, or pretty much any class. Why not just tell people to walk right out of Banneker or Spingarn, Richard? Algebra isn’t just about manipulating equations, it’s about demonstrating logical abilities and the ability to frame cogent thought. This ain’t just about calculating the path of a parabola.

Richard, sooner or later someone’s going to tell you that writing teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, writers and writing teachers. Mathematics is the highest form of symbolic reasoning. This is a fact. Writing is not. The proof of this, Richard, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at writing but did not know a thing about mathematics or physics or chemistry and could not set their own damn VCR clock so it read anything but 12:00. I can cite you, Richard, whose last name, Cohen, WILL be mentioned, who aced his writing final, but when called to the board to explain a simple circuit diagram, managed to electrocute himself on the simplest of machines. He was off by a whole order of magnitude on the amperage!

The problem is that scientists and mathematicians give you something to write about Richard. They’re the ones behind the Apollo Program, and DNA, and Biotech, and Radio and Television. All those things that you’re used to writing about couldn’t have come around if it weren’t for folks that might have been forced into taking Algebra, but developed a bit of a taste for it and made it part of their lives.

But you’re just a columnist. And they’re rocket scientists. Shouldn’t we want everyone to have the capability to become a rocket scientist? Even if they end up just a piddling columnist?

3 Comments so far

  1. Stacey (unregistered) on February 20th, 2006 @ 10:18 pm

    And that is the truth, that math employs areas of the brain to think, strategize, and reason, and that is why is SHOULD be taught. This may not be the motivation of all teachers or curriculum-makers, but it should be, as should the decision to teach more advanced writing skills, science, and forgein languages. Will I ever use the German I became fluent in in high school? I’ll be honest – I haven’t since then, not once. But it taught memory, it taught reasoning, and more over it taught me about the English language even more.

    People think very differently from each other and while writing or phonics might make one child’s brain to work in a way that it doesn’t another, and vice versa with math – algebra.

    Further, and finally before I get off my soapbox, being challenged for the sake of being challeneged is not bad, in fact it’s beneficial.

  2. Jemaleddin (unregistered) on February 21st, 2006 @ 8:24 am

    You know, as a programmer I probably use math than most people. But I find myself solving equations as part of my daily life all the time. The most common is just figuring out proportions: 23/55 = x/47. It’s amazing how often that kind of problem comes up.

    I’m of the opinion that people who reject math and science shouldn’t get to enjoy the benefits they provide. If you want to think like the Amish, you should live like the Amish.

  3. Tiff (unregistered) on February 21st, 2006 @ 9:16 am

    I use at least basic algebra every day- I couldn’t figure out what to pay my talent or bill my clients otherwise. Sure, I use the calculator to actually crunch the numbers, but algebra tells me which numbers to feed into the calculator and why. More than that, even though math was never my strongest subject, the orderly, logical processes of solving equations in algebra (and proofs in geometry) honed my ability to find solutions to problems in every other area of my life. I *hated* math, but I’m glad I learned about it.

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