Listening to Diane Rehm today, I heard two people discussing whether algebra should be a mandatory course for all American students (stream it).

At the time I was preparing for the installation of an auto lift in my garage. To plan for this blue-collar mechanical task I needed a little bit of trigonometry (?=arccos(90.25-x)/2/24.5, where x is the width of the car between lift points); without algebra I would never have gotten to trigonometry. 

Engineers need algebra, mechanics need algebra, architects and cabinetmakers need algebra. Lawyers don’t need algebra much, but we don’t need more lawyers.

I wonder what the algebra doubters think today’s students will be doing twenty years from now. Participating in some vaporware “knowledge economy” that has nothing to do with manipulating numbers or physical things?

America is already doing a lousy job of training people to make and fix things. Dropping the algebra requirement would be just another step down the path toward profound national mediocrity.

13 responses to “Algebra?”

  1. First, I am envious of your lift. Every well equipped garage needs one, along with the large compressor to run the air wrenches that make taking tires off so much easier.

    Every student ought ot have to take at least two semesters of algebra, one of geometry, and one of trig. Those classes help teach you to think, which is sorely lacking in this age of teaching to a standardized test. What happens when those of us who can think die, and there’s no one left to give the answer to the living?

    • Have you tried a rechargeable impact wrench? Plenty of torque for lug nuts (unless you’re working on big trucks, in which case my lift won’t be big enough anyway).

      I had six weeks of algebra and trig. That seemed to be enough.

  2. Unbelievable. Perhaps they’re concerned the dearies’ self-esteem might suffer? Should we also offer alternatives to English, say, and teach incoherent grunting?

    Shades of “Planet of the Apes”…minus the svelte mute girl. Obese, grunting troglodytes bumbling around grunting.

    I use trig for carpentry; quick, what’s the edge length of a 3/4 plywood board cut at a 30 degree angle? Nifty to know cos/sin/tan sometimes.

    A mathematically illiterate populace is more malleable to global warming propaganda and fiscal shenanigans.

  3. I heard that program this morning, too. The justification for dropping the algebra requirement was to prevent dropouts. 25% of students who start high school fail to graduate. Some kids just can’t get algebra–will never get algebra–and we shouldn’t make them hate school just because of a one-size-fits-all academic requirement.

    I wish the schools would teach some more common-sense math applications. (This wouldn’t have to be in place of algebra, it could be in addition to algebra.) For instance, students need to learn the math that will allow them to compare cell phone contracts, for example; automobile financing and the annual cost to drive different models of cars; personal budgeting; credit card comparisons, fees, and interest rates; things like that. These topics could include algebraic functions, but in a practical rather than abstract application.

    Students need to learn about figures and statistics–specifically, how statistics can be used deceptively. For example, we used to hear that 50% of auto fatalities involve drunk drivers. (I think those numbers have declined.) That bare statistic tells us nothing. To know if that 50% is high or low, we need to know what percentage of all drivers is drunk at any given time. If 75% of all drivers are drunk, then driving drunk would be safer than driving sober. An absurd example, to be sure, but it shows very simply that people who cite statistics often allow listeners to make assumptions, often in order to persuade or deceive.

    Sorry for the MEGO. I thought it was a good topic for discussion.

  4. It’s a scandal that schooling without algebra could be counted an education. It’s also a scandal that one has to go through a great deal of schooling to get a job for which the schooling is not needed. Getting the skill set to match the job is harder and harder.

  5. Math helps everyone with critical-thinking skills. There are different ways to get to an answer in math; if one way isn’t working, math teaches us to look at the problem from a different angle. This has helped me as a lawyer.

  6. It is appalling to me how little most lawyers know about math, especially considering how similar math and the practice of law are in principle. Both involve proving something that you only intuitively think is true, using a logical, step-by-step approach, justifying every single argument you make. Furthermore, you’re only allowed to use a basic set of rules to justify your thinking. Can you explain the result in a way that is easy to understand and impossible to refute? Math teaches these skills, as well as skills like following complex directions and citing all your work. Removing math instruction from the curricula of American high schools would be a huge blow to our nation’s educational future

    • @Justin–remember, though, that is the purpose of government-funded education.

      In your life you don’t* fund businesses antithetical to your interests; nor does government.
      Easily-led, ignorant shambling masses are the intentional end-product.

      * well, not voluntarily anyway. We all pay taxes put to uses antithetical to our best interests…

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