In a recent op ed column in the New York Times - "Is Algebra Necessary?" - Andrew Hacker argues against making algebra a required course for high schoolers to complete for graduation.
Algebra, as many of us will recall with varying degrees of pain or pleasure, is that branch of “pure mathematics” that often has one manipulate variables, solve for x, solve for x, and graph equations.
As a staple of education in modern Western and Eastern nations, Hacker’s claim should strike us as little less than shocking. But why would a well-educated CUNY prof make such a claim?
X reasons are discernible in Hacker’s piece...
- We are wasting important resources by diverting them from non-mathematics based fields to mathematics. Many students fail algebra, are prohibited from obtaining higher degrees, and could better be using their time elsewhere.
- Algebra is excessively demanding for a wide range of the population that cuts across socioeconomic and racial status. Why set kids up to fail?
- Most of what is learned in algebra is not applicable to the real world and many who got into technical fields that require mathematics require specialized training that is quite different than what one finds in a typical course in algebra.
As a concluding comment, Hacker says, “It’s not hard to understand why Caltech and M.I.T. want everyone to be proficient in mathematics. 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.”
So what if your upstart teenager reads Hacker’s article and tries to use it as an excuse to get out of her math class? What could be said in response?
Perhaps the biggest point that Hacker is missing is the rightful place algebra and the other branches of higher math have in a liberal arts curriculum, especially one that is overtly Christian. Hacker concedes the palpable fact that mathematics offers helpful mental training and functions as a kind of exercise for one’s analytical abilities (even if he forgets the connection between proficiency in music, mathematics, and the language arts). But the study of mathematics goes far beyond this, for it introduces students to a world that is far different from the one of our everyday experience. Mathematics is a discipline that deals with unchanging, abstract, and purely formal realities. In many respects, these are “larger than life” in that they go beyond the kind of experiences we have in everyday life. But as Bertrand Russell argues in the last chapter of The Problems of Philosophy entitled “The Value of Philosophy,” one’s soul grows in proportion to the objects of one’s contemplation. Mathematics trains students to lift their mental gaze beyond the here and now to consider the intangible and the infinite. Of course, many mathematics teachers treat their subject as something that “just has to be learned” so that one can “do well on tests” and get into a good college, etc. But bad pedagogy doesn’t argue for bad curriculum.
This point should penetrate far deeper for Christians, for in the study of mathematics, we see the mind of God in a way that is distinct from what the study of the natural sciences reveals. Biology, chemistry, and physics speak to the wisdom, goodness, and providence of God, but mathematics speak to his infinity, beauty, immutability, and transcendence. In a Christian context, algebra should inspire awe, fascination, and a childlike wonder in the multifaceted character of the God one serves, studies and adores.
In our job-oriented, utilitarian American context, these benefits are often lost, along with the rigorous discipline required to do well in mathematics. We need to move beyond asking “what can a knowledge of mathematics produce for us?” and start asking “how can knowledge of mathematics improve the souls of our students?”