Of course algebra is necessary

July 31, 2012

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Andrew Hacker certainly can spark a debate. If you get the New York Times, you would have turned to the first page of the opinion section and seen: Is algebra necessary? Hacker is an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York. In his column, he questions whether a traditional approach to algebra is necessary in our schools, at least for those who don’t want to pursue a technical career. He argues that basic math skills are, of course, vital. And although the ideas behind algebra, trigonometry, and calculus may be important, are the specific equations really necessary for most of us?

Holy moly.



I can honestly say that without algebra, geometry, and trigonometry (along with a bit of chemistry), I wouldn’t have my career. I write about technology and business. I may not solve quadratic equations every day, but the math I learned in high school certainly helped me learn about sheet metal flat layout, press brake work, and metrology. I wasn’t a math wiz in school either. I loved to write, not solve for x. If algebra wasn’t a required, standard part of the curriculum, I wouldn’t have taken it.

But I did. I was blessed with a good math teacher who showed us the meaning behind the equations as well as the equations themselves. His and other math classes also helped me to look at some intimidating stuff--the equations in algebra II, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus--and be less intimidated. Did I do well? Heck no. I struggled. Writing came easy; math didn’t, and that remains true today. Regardless, I think that high-school-math experience helped shape the rest of my life.

Hacker describes how community colleges offer machine tool mathematics tailored to meet the technical worker needs of specific industries. He writes, “That sort of collaboration has long undergirded German apprenticeship programs. I fully concur that high-tech knowledge is needed to sustain an advanced industrial economy. But we’re deluding ourselves if we believe the solution is largely academic.”

I’m not so sure. A college friend of mine majored in both education and mathematics. He got a job at a technology company with an eye-popping starting salary. He didn’t bother applying for any teaching jobs. It’s a shame, too. I think he would have made a great teacher.

To some extent Hacker’s proposals reflect what technical college teachers have told me is already happening. Students now graduate high school with minimal grasp of math. So technical colleges must teach some remedial stuff--how to read a ruler and such--to get the up to speed, before even introducing the math skills demanded by local industry.

But I think most technical college teachers would prefer high school graduates have a better grasp of math from the get-go. In fact, if students learn only what local industry needs, it limits future opportunities, especially if their future employers don’t offer additional training. They get a job, learn how to do one thing all day, every day, then get laid off during the next economic downturn and become a statistic. Meanwhile, students who develop critical thinking skills along with a solid technical and mathematical foundation continue to go far.

These days, the more you know, the more employable you are. And even during recent, rocky economic times and sky-high unemployment, company leaders in technical fields have been screaming for more employable people.  If we can't find these people, we look abroad. If those abroad find opportunity elsewhere, our economy will cease to grow.

So yeah, algebra is quite necessary.


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Tim Heston

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