Is It Necessary to Learn Algebra?

Barry Lenson

Is It Necessary to Learn Algebra?

The title of “Is Algebra Necessary,” an article by Andrew Hacker in The New York Times on July 28th, asks an important question. Hacker, a retired professor of political science at Queens College in New York, writes:

“A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.”

Hacker goes on to point out that knowing algebra doesn’t help students later in life. He believes that algebra is one of the reasons that America’s high school dropout rate is so high. He quotes one educational expert who says that many students have to take algebra three or four times before they can finally pass.

I know just what Hacker and the people he interviews are talking about. As I have written on this blog before, I had to take both Algebra and Algebra II courses twice when I was in high school before I could get a grade higher than D in either. And then I promptly forgot all about algebra as soon as I graduated high school. And my lousy performance surely limited my ability to get into college.

But perhaps singling out algebra for blame doesn’t make sense. It was only one subject that I didn’t really use later in life. Did I really need to study chemistry in high school? Did I need to take biology and memorize the life cycles of worms and insects, just so I could regurgitate that information on tests and forget it afterwards? Did I need to read The Red Badge of Courage and The Scarlet Letter, which I barely remember now?

Those questions touch on deeper educational issues. When schools force students to memorize information that they can later forget, are they engaging in an activity that builds students’ overall ability to learn? Are they literally building up students’ brains, like muscles, so they can handle greater loads of knowledge later on in life?

I don’t know enough to answer those questions. But for the moment, it seems that algebra is going nowhere in high school curricula. And until algebra goes away (which it won’t), we all need find streamlined ways of learning it.

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