Is algebra necessary? Yes, algebra is necessary

Two competing claims in the mainstream newspapers:

Andrew Hacker in The New York TimesIs algebra necessary? A brief quote:

There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic.

Daniel Willingham in the Washington Post: Yes, algeba is necessary. A brief quote:

Hacker overlooks the possibility that the mathematics learned in school, even if seldom applied directly, makes students better able to learn new quantitative skills. The on-the-job training in mathematics that Hacker envisions will go a whole lot better with an employee who gained a solid footing in math in school. […]

[In]  teaching the specific skills that people need, you had better be confident that you’re going to cover all those skills. Because if you teach students the significance of the Consumer Price Index they are not going to know how to teach themselves the significance of projected inflation rates on their investment in CDs. Their practical knowledge will be specific to what you teach them, and won’t transfer.

The best bet for knowledge that can apply to new situations is an abstract understanding — seeing that apparently different problems have a similar underlying structure. And the best bet for students to gain this abstract understanding is to teach it explicitly.

2 thoughts on “Is algebra necessary? Yes, algebra is necessary

  1. A blog reader wrote to me saying that he had an IQ in the 160s but would never have been allowed into a university if he had been obliged to pass an algebra course in order to get in.

  2. Hacker and others seem to have overlooked the fact that school algebra ought NOT to be the solution of word problems by using letters or the manipulation of (which may be of limited use in the future), despite what most curricula indicate, but rather the expression and manipulation of generality in number especially. This IS essential: while customers are interested in the particular (price, service etc.), entrepreneurs need policies that can then be applied in particular instances. Policies are generalities. Not to engage in expressing generality is to miss the entire point of school mathematics, in my view.

Leave a Reply