On Algebra

“So I had to have like three years of math in high school to get into college,” Brielle was telling us, “even though I’m getting an art degree. And I have to take more math in college, for, like, an art degree. But I was reading this guy in, like, the New York Times or something, and he was saying nobody should have to do algebra to get into college, cause it’s like keeping out people who would be really smart in other subjects, and most people will never have to do it in real life.”

“I don’t think algebra is the only problem,” Mr. Magundi said. “I think the problem is that, when you come right down to it, all the necessary subjects have been learned, or should have been learned, by sixth grade. By that time, every child who’s gone though school should know how to read, write, and leave a tip at a restaurant. But then what do we do with them? They have to stay in school, because they’re too young to work and too stupid to be trusted at home all day.

“So they end up in high school. But every high-school class is unnecessary for most of the students in it. No one I know who isn’t in a scientific or engineering field uses algebra, and no one I know who isn’t in an academic or literary field uses English Lit. And apparently no one at all uses World History, to judge by the way we keep repeating it. I suppose it may be true that you’re a better person for learning all that algebra. But I might also argue that you would be an even better person if you had spent all that time on developing your artistic skill, which is what you really love, rather than on math classes that you hated, and that taught you things you will never use again after your last math test.

“But I suppose I should keep my mouth shut. If we start questioning whether high-school kids have to learn algebra, pretty soon we’ll start asking whether they have to go to school at all.”


7 thoughts on “On Algebra

  1. “No one I know who isn’t in a scientific or engineering field uses algebra [in their job], and no one I know who isn’t in an academic or literary field uses English Lit [in their job].”

    What about problem-solving skills, or good habits of thought, or the ability to write well? Algebra and English Lit, properly taught, develop those skills.

    1. Mr. Magundi says: Everything comes down to what “properly taught” means. It is quite clear that these subjects are not “properly taught” in our high schools, or our high-school graduates would be able to think clearly and write well. It would be possible to use literature classes to teach good writing, but we do not use them that way: we study the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter (always a favorite, because Hawthorne takes the trouble to tell us at every turn, “This is a symbol”—”It may serve, let us hope, to symbolise some sweet moral blossom,” “little Pearl, herself a symbol, and the connecting link between those two,” etc.) The secretary called on to write a memorandum to all employees about repairs to the parking lot would do well to forget everything she learned about Hawthorne in school, although she might bring great joy and contentment to her life if she read the rest of his works on her own time. Likewise, good habits of thought would probably be better promoted by spending two weeks discussing common logical fallacies than by spending two years on algebra. It is not that algebra does no one good: it is simply that algebra does not do everyone good. I still think the subjects that are universally necessary for a good education have all been covered in any decent elementary school.

  2. I was very frustrated years ago when my employer assigned me to supervise a bookkeeper with a two year accounting degree who couldn’t figure out that if our supplier billed us $2000 for 4000 linear feet of a product, an eight foot piece of that product cost us $4. Every time we got an invoice like that she had to call me for assistance. Even simple jobs require at least basic algebra.

    1. Mr. Magundi says: I suppose it is possible, and perhaps even efficient, to use algebra for a problem like that, if algebra is your thing. But I’d have resorted to simpler elementary-school arithmetic. Divide $2000 by 4000 to get a price of 50 cents per foot; then you can multiply that price by any arbitrary length. There are more complicated problems that do require algebra, but it should not take any algebra at all, let alone an accounting degree, to solve simple problems like that. What it does take is a solid sense of how the basic calculations we learned in school relate to real life, and that seems to be precisely where most of our schools fail us—as we can see by the fact that it is possible to get an associate’s degree in accounting (for which more than one algebra course must have been a prerequisite) without being able to account for anything.

  3. I actually used algebra once in a business setting. We were calculating the average value of the inventory on-hand. The trainer told us to use two calculators:

    on one calculator, multiply the minimum order level by the price of the good.

    On the other calculator, take the amount one would order to bring the stock to the maximum order level (the “Order Amount”), divide it by two, and multiply that number by the price of the good.

    When finished, we were told to add the two running totals.

    I noted that one could add the minimum order level to half the Order Amount, and multiply that sum by the order price – thus using only one calculator. When asked how I could be sure this would always work, I appealed to algebra: ((A*x) + (B*x) = (A+B)*x).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s