In Defense of Algebra

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

We’ve been talking x squared minus y cubed divided by z to the power of four lately. This is the language of algebra.

Andrew Hacker, professor of political science at Queens College New York, recently proclaimed on The Takeaway that the age old belief that "algebra and mathematics generally sharpens our mind, gives us critical reasoning faculties and so on...[is] total fiction."

Many of our listeners weighed in on the topic. Nancy W. from Northville, Michigan says: "I am a pianist and private piano instructor. I also have held positions in employee relations and communications. Do I use algebra or geometry daily? No. However, I'm sure they did much to enhance my critical thinking skills, much like the music I teach enhances a student's general coordination, reading, and collaborative skills. And I will say, geometry has come in handy as my husband and I have made home improvements on our own, determined the fall pattern of a dead tree we removed, and many other 'round-the-home' projects. Yeah, math!"

Another listener, Amber W., from Utah, explains: "My undergraduate degree was in philosophy, so I could argue most of my degree was useless. However, because of what I learned in those classes, I could also easily argue otherwise. Not everything we learn is directly useful. Algebra is a great prequel for symbolic logic. I do not think everyone needs a formal course in that, but they need the basic skills. We lack basic logic already. There could be alternatives, but I do not see them in the guests option."

Evelyn Lamb holds a PhD in Mathematics from Rice University and is a writer for Scientific American.


Evelyn Lamb

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Comments [10]

Daniel from Oregon

Hacker! Formal algebra is merely the formal instantiation. Natural algebra is what gives substance to the formal variety. In fact, there is no such thing as pre-algebra. If you have a brain, you can't help but do algebra, by default, whether you are aware of it or not. Mr. Hacker, you have no clue what you're saying!

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Sep. 19 2012 03:13 AM

The picnic table epiphany, if I may call it that, is something many of us can relate to, and Andrew Hacker’s position may well be where the real “total fiction” lies. In point of fact, I had something of a Pythagorean moment myself once, while working on setting an outbuilding, and it led to an article titled “Homesteading with Pythagoras.” The link to it is here:

Aug. 06 2012 04:01 PM
Steve S.

Evelyn Lamb is one of my heroines.
I am a builder and teach carpenters math.
You could fill a book with all of the math applications used in building.
Pitch and slopes of roofs, cutting rafters, fitting trim together, calculating loads, bending sheet metal duct work, using fractions, ohm's law for electricians, Boyles law for A/C techs...and on and on.

Aug. 02 2012 10:44 AM
DrSteveA from Nwe York, NY

Hacker is mostly correct that our current junior high through high school math curriculum spends too much time on algebra (often the same material repeatedly over and over again over multiple years), leading to calculus or at least pre-calculus. Our current math curriculum is a relic of a bygone era, based on 19th Century ideal of the education a landed gentleman should have, notably algebra and trig in order to do land surveying and architecture. A modern, rigourous, scientific and nationally useful curriculum would spend much more time on logic, probabilty and statisics, which are not universally (or even often) taught as part of the mandatory universal curriculum. And insofar as something has to be reduced to make room, then advanced algebra should proably be it. This is not dumbing down. It is moving from 19th century to 21st century.

Aug. 01 2012 05:06 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Our Scientists use Math to figure out the world. Math has become a part of our philosophy as to who we are and why we exist. My kids might not become rocket scientists but it can't hurt for them to begin to appreciate the process in which our brainiacs our coming up with theories as to who we are and where we come from. Algebra is a link to our missing links.

Aug. 01 2012 12:22 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I am making my son aware that if he truly wants to build roller coasters when he gets big, he can't make any mistakes with algebra.

I sneak in algebra with the kids when it comes to cooking and measuring ingredients...

If you can find some math teacher who teaches practical applications to algebra perhaps we would not have had this discussion, and maybe that is the problem

Aug. 01 2012 12:16 PM

Hacker is so off base. How can one begin to understand statistics or other quantitative processes if they can not solve a basic algebraic equation. Hacker says eliminating algebra from core subjects in not "dumbing down" but that is exactly what it is!

Aug. 01 2012 11:49 AM

Thanks for this story. The problem is not that algebra is outmoded, but that it lacks a crucial dimension as it is conventionally explained. A whole underground movement of rogue algebra instructors have grown up, lecturing in unorthodox environments, challenging the accepted algebraic shibboleths with applied rhombus theorems. Dicey Stewart is among them:

Aug. 01 2012 09:51 AM

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