Friday, March 03, 2006

Math Rant

Evolutionblog has a great rant about a recent column in the Washington Post by Richard Cohen, who thinks that Algebra is unnecessary.

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At Saturday, March 04, 2006 11:00:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I guess I have mixed emotions about the rant.

I am a high school dropout (finished the 11th grade, barely). Maybe I was like the young lady the editorial addressed.

After growing up for a few years in the Army, I eventually went to college and got my BS in electrical engineering. Maybe the young lady who didn't get the algebra could do the same.

As I said, I generally agree with the ranter, but I can see the editorialist's point of view, too. I think what he wrote reflects the fact that he doesn't know what he doesn't know (THAT again), but the proof that he hasn't needed algebra lies in his success as a writer despite the lack of algebra. It seems likely he'd be a better writer knowing a little algebra, but I'm not sure that it matters that much.

I suspect that protection of self esteem is the point of the piece the ranter objected to. Unfortunately it went unsaid. Denial of a high school diploma means lessened self esteem, so damn the algebra and give the kid her high school diploma. I disagree entirely with that stance, but some seem to hold it.

I ramble, sorry. As I said, I have mixed emotions about the rant.

At Monday, March 06, 2006 2:25:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Wow. You got some street cred on this one. My own stumbling block was languages and lack of direction. I'm impressed that you ran into the wall and later came back to it. Surely electrical engineering is one of the most mathcentric fields you could study.

To me algebra is just one entry into the main attraction. The symbolic analytic methodology is what matters. I think that high school subjects are very sensitive to the qualities of the teacher. If you mesh with the teacher, you can learn anything. If you don't, everything can seem impossible. The school is there to change us, to get us to the other side of our mental impediments to let us see what it looks like on the other side. Letting someone take Algebra seven times without success strikes me as a failure of the system somewhere.

People are different. Maybe this young lady, for psychological reasons or because of her very brain structure, was actually unable to succeed in Algebra. I personally doubt it. I suspect the true situation has been misrepresented. If a person fails even once, I believe it indicates a defect in the educational process. If a teacher doesn't know by November who is having problems, there's a problem with the teacher. If, after diligent effort, a student has failed twice, there needs to be an intervention. Let's create an educational SWAT team for cracking open such cases.

My wife had a problem with math in high school because of the prevailing myth that girls don't do math. She later became a computer programmer. Now she's a manager in IT.

There is a certain amount of self-esteem required to break through such stereotypes. I'm of the opinion, though, that self-esteem is mainly earned by confrontation and conquest of difficult tasks. One of the purposes of educational institutions is to engineer success by showing the student how to apply effort and knowledge to surmount a previously unscalable obstacle. Forking over the diploma would have lessened its value, for her and everyone else.

There is a place for changing the rules, though -- not bending, but changing. If math is the sticking point so often, we could allow legitimate and difficult substitutes. For instance, a thorough mastery of geometry, or high-speed calculation, or a computer programming language, or even demonstrated mastery of Rubik's Cube could be used as a partial substitute along with a course on the uses of mathematics and its position in modern society. Mr. Cohen could have used that one.

At Monday, March 06, 2006 3:07:00 PM, Blogger mal said...

thanks, I read his blog and the subsequent comments. It is scary that people can be the foolish. It is even more frightening that they are breeding.....

At Tuesday, March 07, 2006 10:36:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I dunno Mallory. The people you see on the planet didn't get here by accident. They all have something going for them. Think of them as meme-deprived. I think that math is important, and I guess I'm talking to a couple of engineers. But I'll go with Steve on this. You can't write someone off just because the don't fit into our little academic pigeonholes. It's a shame though that a grown man is preaching about the uselessness of algebra.


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