March 11, 2008

The Carpenter Defends Math Against the Insecurities of the Editor

Justin Katz

It's disappointing even to have to argue against such arguments as the one put forward by Ron Wolk, a member of the governor's task force on urban education:

The main reasons students are not learning algebra and geometry is that they don't really want to. They think higher-order math is irrelevant to their real lives. They can't imagine that they will ever use algebra and geometry.

And they are mostly right.

I am willing to bet that the majority of Rhode Islanders who graduated from high school have made little, if any, use of algebra or geometry. Most, like me, probably forgot most of what they "learned" before the ink was dry on their diplomas. I squeaked through algebra, plain and solid geometry, and trigonometry, but a year later I couldn't explain the difference between a cosine and a stop sign. And I can't think of an instance over the past half-century when I needed algebra or geometry. ...

I am not denigrating math. It is important in helping us cope with the demands of everyday life. It is also a powerful problem-solving tool that can help students learn to think logically and reason clearly. Fortunately, it’s not the only path to clear thinking. Students can also learn to think and solve problems by studying the humanities — literature, history, philosophy — and by engaging in analysis, discourse, and debate.

If one is fortunate enough to have made a career editing an education magazine, as Mr. Wolk was, then avoiding algebra and geometry may be a possibility. Personally, when the opportunities procured via my English degree proved inadequate to make a living, I switched to carpentry, and having a strong background in those very subjects has enabled me to leap up the career ladder. Knowing how to figure out the run of an 8-pitch roof over 14 inches of rise opened a more profitable door than all of my rhetorical skills have thus far managed.

Indeed, considering his inclusion of "analysis" on a list of alternatives to math, it's possible that he truly doesn't realize the value of the algebra that his teachers "force-fed" him. The algebraic approach of assigning abstract variables and assessing their relationship is critical to analysis. More explicitly, those without the baseline understanding of math enabled and reinforced via those plodding algebra exercises are more liable to be taken in by propagandists' inane "analysis".*

Frankly, I'm not persuaded that Mr. Wolk has constructed his argument from the numbers up, so to speak, beginning instead with the a priori mandate to oppose "'rigorous' standards for what every kid should know." My skepticism arises from my assessment that his conclusion doesn't follow from his argument:

If we want more young people to be proficient in math and science, then we need to find ways to awaken and nourish a passion for these subjects in elementary school so that they will want to study them in high school.

I agree that more must be done to give kids first-hand evidence of math's utility. Perhaps they could build bird houses with hip roofs. Maybe they could be shown how algebra can help them make arguments that help them advance some cause or other. Even if math isn't a particular student's strong suit, he or she will absorb its principles in a way for which there is not alternative.

The first step toward generating incentive for the development of such creative, cross-disciplinary solutions, however, would be for grown-ups to stop fighting that eighth-grade battle against difficult homework assignments.

* Get this: "20% of the people earn 69% of the taxable income" but "pay 75% of the income taxes," and that's supposed to be self-evidently unfair to the other 80%.

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I think what bothers me most is that Mr. Wolk describes algebra and geometry as "higher order math." Algebra is very, very basic, and could probably be taught in schools much earlier than it is now. I can remember problems in first grade (3 + __ = 11) that could have just as easily been taught as basic algebra if my teacher had bothered.

Now if we are looking for high school subjects that aren't needed for most students, I would suggest biology, if anything. That's something I just can't imagine most non-medical, non-science people using in their daily lives. Math, on the other hand, really is a necessity.

Posted by: Mario at March 11, 2008 7:29 AM

Gee, I use these "high levels" of math all the time, ie when shopping: 10 oz costs $1.79; 16 oz costs $2.49; which is a better buy?
I guess Ron Wolk doesn't shop or doesn't care. And one wonders why so many get into jams with their mortgages and credit card debt.
Perhaps he is right that our youth doesn't care about this stuff. But he is dead wrong that we shouldn't teach it and require it.
The Wolk's of the world are responsible for the "dumbing down" of our society.

Posted by: Mike Cappelli at March 11, 2008 9:56 AM

Here we go again. More excuses why our kids aren't learning. How convenient an excuse...that they just don't want to learn. Why hadn't I thought of that? Maybe if their teachers returned to actually teaching instead of wasting their days on things that only benefit them, perhaps it would rub off on the kids. I can remember going to school and not particularly wanting to learn but lo and behold, thanks to my teachers enthusiasm and ability to let me know that later in life those things would become relevant, I did learn! I am so sick of hearing people make the excuse that it's our kids. If the teacher can't stress the importance of a particular subject, ESPECIALLY math, then get another job!!! Does no one care that our kids are being screwed out of a real education because some pinhead thinks it's their own fault?

Posted by: David at March 11, 2008 12:11 PM
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