Why we need algebra

ACHING FOR ALGEBRA: Political scientist and professor emeritus Andrew Hacker kicked the hornet's nest this weekend with his opinion piece in the New York Times, "Is Algebra Necessary?" He points out that lots of the kids who drop out of school can't pass algebra. Getting rid of algebra, he writes "need not involve dumbing down," and he adds: "I hope that mathematics departments can also create courses in the history and philosophy of their discipline, as well as its applications in early cultures." Ouch. Algebra seems pretty darn fundamental to us. Skipping algebra sounds like a path that will even further restrict the number of students--particularly disadvantaged students--from pursuing math or science professions.

Like us, astrophysicist/blogger Rob Knop is disappointed in Hacker's reliance on the hackneyed "Math Is Hard" argument to support giving up on a subject. Knop also raises a larger question: if Hacker's point is to ditch the subject because it doesn't bear job relevance, can't this logic be pursued to any topic? (Hence his post title: "When Andrew Hacker asks 'Is Algebra Necessary?', why doesn't he just ask 'Is High School Necessary?'") The larger question: to what extent have we conflated education with job training? In light of all the stress on 21st century skills and workforce in the press today, Knop argues that education should be "training people to be members of civilization, not employees." Yah, what he said.

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