Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Algebra Is Needed!

The following post is in response to a post against teaching algebra in New York Times.  The post below is written by Jim Peschke.  

Algebra is needed!

I've often lamented the lack of a Calculus program at some high schools.  My reasoning, challenged by the educational establishment, is that Calculus is fundamental and should be at least offered if not mandatory.

While educators weigh the merits of high school Calculus and Latin, some have taken the discussion to a new low.  Queens College professor Andrew Hacker opines in the New York Times that mandatory Algebra in high school is harmful and should be eliminated. To all who labor for educational excellence, this proposal feels like conceding the space race to the Soviets a year after Apollo 11.

Without listing the many obvious flaws in Hacker's plan, let's look at the less "You wanna do WHAT?!?" reasons that Algebra must stay.

Algebra is not just another level of math; it is a fundamental shift in thinking from the concrete to the abstract.  Such ascendency of thought is essential to the development of the whole child and is not limited to mathematics.  Far from being difficult, Algebra is one of the easiest tools to bridge this gap.

Other tools of abstract instruction exist.  Philosophy and Theology first come to mind, but these have their own limitations.  Either subject covered in depth requires broad experience and understanding often unavailable to the ninth grader.  Both have limited professional application, are largely untestable and too subjective to avoid the political malfeasance (ie. indoctrination) rampant in government schools.

Could one actually teach Philosophy in a government school without the usual leftist tripe rearing its ugly head?  Given the current state of affairs, any such attempt would replace enlightened open-minded abstract discourse with a descent into political doctrine, pseudoscience, and groupthink.  The mere thought of teaching Theology in a government school is the secular version of heresy. There is a reason these subjects thrive best in a college setting.

Algebra forges abstract thought in a way that students can grasp and teachers can measure.  Students cannot pull the wool over the teacher's eyes with the usual warm fuzzy "Its how I feel" or "My heart tells me so" nonsense abundant in less regimented courses.  If a student fails to grasp the concepts of Algebra, this shortcoming can be exposed and corrected.

If this is Mr. Hacker's idea of "too difficult", too bad.  We don't send our children to school to "follow their heart" like some sobbing American Idol contestant leaving the stage for the last time.  We send them to school to learn.

Oh and by the way, Algebra has that not-so-minor virtue of being useful.

No discussion of the merits of Algebra can avoid the anecdotal "I've never needed Algebra" tales.  Most of us who made it through Algebra understand the scientific method well enough to reject anecdotal evidence.  These stories also miss the point; of course it is possible to get by without Algebra, but at what cost?

Cross country travel by horseback is possible, but how many of us choose this option?  It sounds great if you've never heard of cars, planes, or trains.  Leonardo DaVinci could have done wonders with AutoCAD, but he never missed having it.  Galileo could have saved a great deal of time if he had a pocket calculator, but he still advanced astronomy.

Silly?  Perhaps, but it puts to light the obvious "You don't know what you're missing" problem.  Those who never grasped the power of Algebra are inherently the least capable of appreciating its value.  Such appreciation itself is part of the learning experience.

Calls for the elimination of Algebra showcase the woeful inadequacy of the American K-12 educational system.  These naive protestations are an ineloquent form of shooting the messenger.  Our duty as a society is to expose and correct these shortcomings rather than mask them by dumbing down an already anemic course load.

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