Taking on algebra
Twice in my rather distinguished career I have taken on algebra – questioned why is it invariably a required course in high school, observed that I have never used it in what is sometime called real life and did not, let the record state, understand it for one minute, which must be why I nearly flunked it, passing with a wink from the teacher. Still, I have managed to eke out a living and write what must be 10,000 columns, a few of them very good indeed.
Both algebra columns were greeted by Bronx Cheers registering a solid 10 on the Richter scale. Some people thought I had lost my mind or that I must be joking, while others called me a numbskull and demanded that my editors put me out to pasture. A blogger named Scott Aaronson said I had shared my “doofus insights” with the world and far more prestigious-sounding “Quantum Physics World” quite methodically – but not persuasively – took me apart. An article about my column in at The American Thinker was headlined “The Strange Beliefs of Richard Cohen” in which my algebra animus was found to be “indicative of (my) liberal bias.” This from someone who credits algebra to teaching him logic.
Now comes the extremely distinguished social scientists Andrew Hacker to reiterate the Cohen Case against algebra. The first of my columns was a more or less personal rant against a subject I found as painful as a migraine and which I never used – not once – in a pretty full life. But the second concerned the truly pernicious effect algebra had on the high school dropout rate: It was public enemy number one. I took as an example a girl named Gabriela Ocampo who after taking and failing algebra six times, just dropped out of school. Hacker, a numbers guy himself, has the stats to show that Ocamapo is hardly an anomaly.
“Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece. “Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry. He cites statistics fingering algebra for the low graduation rate at New York’s City University, where he is an emeritus professor of political science. (Additionally, he is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books.) At CUNY, “57 percent of its students didn’t pass its mandated algebra course,” Hacker writes. “The depressing conclusion of a faculty report: ‘failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor.’”
To his credit, Hacker adds insult to injury. He takes a properly cynical pose toward the totally unproven claim that “the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job.” And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he even questions the canard “that mathematic sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept.” I am here to tell you that it does not, or, to put it another way, the inability to master algebra says absolutely nothing about reasoning ability. In fact, I know people who can virtually work out Fermat’s Last Theorem in their heads but keep marrying the wrong women.
I don’t know about Hacker, but I hold no animus towards algebra or those who can do it. Bully for them! And if they find the manipulations of unknowns so exciting that they continue to higher math and solve one or two of the world’s major problems (global warming, for instance) then I, for one, applaud with great sincerity. As for me, though, I never got it. I never understood a word the teacher was saying and every problem chalked out of the blackboard filled me with dread: What the hell was it?
With glee, with cosmic relief, with incredible giddiness, I fled to history, geography and English. I read the textbooks in the first week and then lost myself in the library. I loved history — and I still do. The history I learned in school I still use. It informs my columns and my political views. The algebra I (didn’t) learn has proven totally useless. I have never once used it, not even inadvertently, which is what some people insisted after I wrote my earlier columns, and its only use, it seems to me, is to convince those of us who can’t do it that we are somehow inferior. As I have previously maintained, the proper answer to the question of “How many boys will it take to mow two lawns in half the time” (or something like that) is, “Who cares?”
By Richard Cohen | 11:39 AM ET, 07/30/2012