According to a report by NPR’s All Things Considered, there is a debate going on in the California community college system on the question of whether students ought to have to pass algebra to receive a degree. The argument presented, and I’m going to be unabashedly unfair here, is that the poor recently children mostly don’t need to learn the material, can’t relate to the abstract reasoning, and aren’t smart enough to learn it.
Snowflakes are constructed along mathematical lines, but are apparently too fragile to comprehend their own natures. And algebra by itself is in many ways a middle step along the path from being able to count to being able to count things that matter. Much of the thinking that is taught in algebra is to prepare students for calculus, and those who don’t go on to that exalted level miss out on a lot of the point.
But even without that particular fulfillment, there are good reasons for students to endure — I mean take — algebra. One important realization that students need to acquire at some point along the road is that they will have to do things that they don’t want to do and that will be hard. In this respect, algebra would be of equal value with Latin or music appreciation or European diplomatic history.
It’s my contention, as well, that there is a benefit, both to the individual student and to society, to be had by teaching algebra. Those other subjects are valuable, too, but algebra — and mathematics more generally — is essential to our modern society.
This is because we live in an age that is shaped by information and technology, and mathematics is one of the native languages of that world. Global warming is a fact that requires a measure of mathematical thinking to understand. The same is true about the economics of taxes or of healthcare delivery. If we are to understand the presentation of data in the controversies of policy, we have to be numerate, able to follow the formulae and their calculations.
This takes me to the larger point of why colleges exist. In their beginnings in Oxford and Paris and through most of their history, institutions of higher learning were for the few, open to those who belonged to the nobility or the clergy. Most people couldn’t read and wouldn’t have had time, anyway. But as we have moved into an industrialized world, leaving physical labor increasingly behind, gains in productivity have offered the opportunity to more and more people to climb the social ladder that they participated in building.
And in the United States, we started the experiment of having no nobility, no ossified classes. We fell short of that ideal and continue to do so, though we keep trying to improve. To make this dream work requires an educated populous. The classical liberal arts — including mathematics — was the curriculum that free people were taught, liber being the Latin word for free. If we hope to sustain and fulfill the promise of democracy, we need to broaden the distribution of knowledge, not subdivide fields. Physicians, lawyers, managers, plumbers, and farmers should understand something about each other’s work, especially how all of them and many more fit together to make our society.
Dropping algebra may appeal to students and may make graduation rates rise, if all we care about is the number of people who get through the meat grinder, but the better choice would be to improve the teaching of mathematics in lower levels of education and more help for college students who need it. Our model of society depends on it.
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