The Nefarious Pretense of College Algebra
I don’t know who runs the algebra lobby in Washington, but they have perpetrated a profound coup. Somehow, they have convinced colleges across America that the temporary and partial mastery of their recipes for solving obscure problems is somehow an indispensable benefit to society.
Their unchallenged contention is that students will improve their reasoning by memorizing these procedures long enough to pass the class.
Besides this, the algebra requirement in most colleges doubles as a filter, stopping dingbats from scarpering into the woods with a degree bearing their university’s name.
I also have the suspicion that bitter algebra veterans feel they had to endure it, so everyone else should too.
The Mathematical Association of America argues that algebra is likely the first experience students have with logic and abstract thinking, as well as making decisions based on available information. What they ignore is whether a better option exists for accomplishing these objectives.
Their arguments become noticeably wimpy after this. Students, for example, will be able to “communicate better with people who use mathematical ideas.”
Of course, algebra is an appropriate requirement for those pursuing STEM degrees. I would even endorse force-feeding it to high school kids since they don’t yet know what they’re good at or what career they might one day have. However, this general education requirement is of little use for those working toward college degrees in the humanities and can create a serious barrier.
In his New York Times article, in which the title asks, “Is Algebra Necessary,” Andrew Hacker asserts that “making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent.”
It’s a sobering thought. After all, is a would-be social worker less empathic because of their algebraic illiteracy? How many difference-making history teachers never stood in front of a high school classroom because they couldn’t find the minor axis of an ellipse? Suppose we could suss out how many careers never were because they couldn’t make the grade in this one, difficult to defend, requirement.
A university’s desire to provide a well-rounded education to all of its students is admirable, but if a future physicist only needs English Composition, then don’t bother me with anything beyond long division. Reading half a dozen short stories and writing a page about your favorite characters is not the English counterpart to college algebra!
If I am expected to endure the trauma of college algebra, or else work jobs where occasional toilet plunging is required for the rest of my life, then I would like to see our future Mr. Wizard’s 15-page analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Algebra: Remarkably Forgettable
I would put my money on the physics major remembering more of Stephen and the Blooms years from now than I did of algebra a few weeks after escaping it. Algebra has a forgettable quality. It’s almost as though Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones stand outside algebra classrooms at the end of each semester with their flashbulbs ready.
“Good afternoon. Please give your attention to my associate, Agent J…”
I came to this conclusion after desperately seeking help with my algebra homework all three times I took the course. In each semester, I found several self-satisfied, self-described lovers of algebra willing to step down from their cloud long enough to enlighten a plebian like myself. Most often, though, after tugging at their belts like Barney Fife just before looking down at my book, their smirks would melt into frowns. They would get very mortal-looking expressions of confusion on their faces and say, “huh, I don’t remember this”.
To drive the point home, I’ll mention that one of these people holds a master’s in mathematics.
I heard rumors that there existed a monk somewhere in the Himalayan Mountains who could help, but as I was rushing home to saddle my donkey, I ran into a fellow college student who had somehow escaped algebra class with a knowledge of algebra.
I proposed marriage. Her lovely eyes glanced at the spaghetti sauce stain on my shirt before she declined. However, she did offer to tutor me once a week. She made good on the offer too and nearly all I learned of algebra was taught by her. Alas, in the end, she could not patiently escort me through every problem as quickly as the professor could assign them, and I failed the course twice.
My 3.8 GPA was going to take a hit.
A Worthy Replacement for College Algebra
At this point, let’s take a step back from our hero’s quest to revisit this hullabaloo about algebra being every college student’s oasis for learning logic.
What would be a better option than algebra for teaching logic? How about a logic class?
In the United States, research has shown an embarrassing number of adults cannot tell facts from opinion, especially when emotion is involved. Learning to multiply letters isn’t doing the trick. We are a country starved of critical thinking skills, and requiring every college graduate to at least be able to identify a few argument fallacies before graduating makes the country stronger.
Surely there is logic in every problem assigned by math professors, but the idea that students are discovering that logic for themselves is optimistic. All that is required to find the answer, and collect their points, is the successful memorization of those recipes I mentioned.
Chess too is an exercise in logic, but if you memorize a line of the English Opening, don’t expect your logician’s certificate to arrive in the mail in four to six weeks. One can make the moves without an understanding of the reasons behind them.
Learning logic via algebra is an unnecessary and silly detour.
At the university where I proudly chose to matriculate, I discovered that a class called Logic I or Critical Thinking could not be found in the general education requirements.
Is knowing how to FOIL imaginary numbers a greater benefit to society on Election Day than every college graduate in the country knowing how to recognize argument fallacies? If teaching logic is the aim of college algebra for non-STEM majors, then take the better route of requiring critical thinking credits.
Ours is an economy that all but requires we have a college degree if we wish to reside in the middle class. Since this is the case, every class included under general education ought to be well considered. These are the courses that stand between every college student and a comfortable life for them and their families.
Universities around the country are beginning to reconsider algebra’s place on that list.
This semester I made my third and, regardless of the outcome, my final attempt at algebra. I finally passed, but if I had failed, I would have transferred to a nearby university where college algebra is not required for my degree.
After three tours of duty, I am one algebra veteran who says the class does not belong on the list of general education requirements.