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Is Algebra Necessary?

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Posted on Jul 31, 2012
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“Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent,” argues Andrew Hacker, a social scientist at the City University of New York. “In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower.”

“The toll mathematics takes begins early,” Hacker continues. One in four ninth-graders fails to finish high school, he points out, and most educators cite algebra as the primary academic reason.

Hacker is reminding us that students are not equally endowed with aptitudes for learning all academic subjects. By setting standards that require proficiency in advanced mathematics, students who are unable to meet those standards are discouraged. Some drop out. Others are barred from entering universities. And the intellectual diversity of a college’s student body is reduced.

“It’s not hard to understand why Caltech and MIT want everyone to be proficient in mathematics,” Hacker says. “But it’s not easy to see why potential poets and philosophers face a lofty mathematics bar. Demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better.”

One solution, Hacker suggests, is to tailor mathematics curricula to the problems students are likely to encounter during the course of their lives. Another, foggier proposal, is to “treat mathematics as a liberal art.”

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Andrew Hacker in The New York Times:

A skeptic might argue that, even if our current mathematics education discourages large numbers of students, math itself isn’t to blame. Isn’t this discipline a critical part of education, providing quantitative tools and honing conceptual abilities that are indispensable — especially in our high tech age? In fact, we hear it argued that we have a shortage of graduates with STEM credentials.

Of course, people should learn basic numerical skills: decimals, ratios and estimating, sharpened by a good grounding in arithmetic. 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. And if there is a shortage of STEM [Science, technology, engineering & math] graduates, an equally crucial issue is how many available positions there are for men and women with these skills. A January 2012 analysis from the Georgetown center found 7.5 percent unemployment for engineering graduates and 8.2 percent among computer scientists.

… What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² - y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.

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