I grew up in one of those Judeo-Christian homes that apparently strike terror in the hearts of the likes of Betty Friedan, Alan Grayson and Kathryn Joyce. My parents never had sex until they got married to each other. Theirs is an enduring...

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Algebra Part One- How Useful Is Algebra, Really?

My brother asked me to tackle this topic. He would give it his own treatment, but he's on a small team, attempting to complete a quality kitchen remodel in five days or less. This was day three. He's in bed.

(Sorry. I wrote this last night. It's now day 4. He just got home- 9:25pm.)

Richard Cohen has apparently published two rants against requiring Algebra in highschool. His recent one is here. Someone I like a lot, has linked to two rebuttals, here, and here.

I took algebra. I loved it. It was the first time I ever really liked math. Granted, it made my brain hurt, but I was able to grasp it, and turn in accurate answers.

But before I require anyone else to study algebra, I'd better know that it would be a wise use of their time. (Gabriela, in the story, spent six highschool courses at it. That's a lot of time!) So I started asking around. I asked a friend who was majoring in math, to be a math teacher. I asked another friend who invented a machine that carves beautiful stair balisters if you program it to. I searched Google for variations of "using algebra".

I got some answers like these:

It can help you to grasp the character and attributes of God (Eighteen years of ATI showed me that any subject can, if you can think in analogies, and don't insist they line up perfectly).

It helps you to order your thought process. It most certainly does this. So does the study of sentence diagramming, Latin grammar, music theory, logic, studying composition, keeping a journal, and cleaning the house. So does meditating on Scripture, for that matter. Are we going to make all of these required subjects, just because they increase our thinking skills?

It teaches you problem solving. Sure it does. I was terrible at solving problems before I took algebra. Now I solve them according to an ordered set of rules. Just ask my family. This is a terrible way to solve the dilemmas I encounter in city traffic. "Just wait... There's a car coming from the left. That means... Oh! Now there are two cars coming from the right. They're traveling at different speeds from each other. I think they'll have reached this intersection at... too late. Now, there is a whole line of headlights..." They think algebra ruined me. :) The other family members are excellent at problem solving, without any algebra at all.

And it can be used to instill good character, such as the determination to keep trying, even when failure seems imminent. So can a number of other pursuits. If there is so little work to be done around your house that your children are growing up without building character, then I guess you have to think up something to make them exert themselves. But algebra isn't necessary to build character. In fact, it's no guarantee. Many highly-educated people enter the work force without ever having learned good character.

It broadens your vocabulary, increases your ability to communicate...

You get the idea. Actually, I'd thought up about a dozen of these "reasons" myself, before asking around, and I could come up with more if you want me to. But if this fellow human being is probably never going to use algebra, why not find some other discipline or two that will achieve these other objectives?

I did find some uses of algebra (no thanks to the math teachers I talked to).

My dad and brothers use it to wire temperature control systems for buildings housing temperature-sensitive work, such as JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories), and the J. Paul Getty Museum.

A friend's mom uses algebra to cut out garments that fit perfectly the first time, every time. She used algebra to cut garments for Nancy Reagan. The garments she cut would normally sell for $1,000 a piece, or maybe $1,500 for a two piece set.

Another friend told me he uses algebra everyday, in his job as a computer programmer.

I've read that nurses use algebra to calculate the dosage of medicine for each patient.

And I used algebra to discover how to figure percent, which I had forgotten how to do. (sheepish grin) (I haven't needed to figure percent all that often, I guess.)

But in all of these disciplines (maybe not the computer programmer...), the algebra required could be learned in a few hours, by someone who never even took algebra- let alone passed it. For instance, my dad didn't understand algebra in school, and none of my brothers took it, yet they had no difficulty learning what they needed to use to wire a house correctly.

Of course engineers and scientists are a necessary part of our society, and there are other fields of work that require algebra, but these fields will be probably not be filled by people who hated algebra.

Algebra is useful. It's even necessary that some people learn it. But should it be a standard requirement for highschool graduation? That is part two.


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