Recently Andrew Hacker published an op-ed in the New York Times about Algebra. It’s extremely hard for many people, and it’s of dubious practical value, he says. We should de-emphasize it.
I’m entirely sympathetic to this point of view, even though in general, I support the agenda of the traditional liberal arts. I’m one of those people for whom math of all kinds was always exceedingly difficult–painfully, excruciatingly, humiliatingly difficult. I have no idea why this is. It could be some kind of psychological tic or block; it could be some kind of genetic inability; it could be the fault of nuns in first grade. I really don’t know, and I’m still actually slightly ashamed to admit that I never passed algebra in high school, and that my high school cobbled together some kind of individual remedial studies thing for me so I could graduate and supposedly go to college.
Ironically, by that point I could not imagine ever going to college, because the experience of constantly being made to enact my own math incapacities had made me bitterly hate and detest the entire apparatus of education. Imagine being brought to the roof of a building, day after day, and being told to jump off and fly. You fail every time. Soon it becomes clear to you that you will always fail, and that you are enmeshed in a bizarre and authoritarian form of sadism. It’s Kafka-esque, something I came to recognize partly because I was a voracious and precocious reader who took comfort in Kafka among many others. Education was like the punishment machine in Kafka’s Penal colony. If I could fly as low on the school’s radar as possible, I could avoid having the punishment of algebra endlessly re-inscribed. So I sat in the back of the slow classes and read Keroauc, and thought of ways to undermine the punishment regime.
Critics of Hacker will mock him for suggesting that he wants students to have it easy, to preserve some lazy idea and cheap notion of “self esteem.” My self esteem is perfectly robust, thank you, despite my encounters with algebra: sometimes, a person forced to fail develops a sense of critical rage or contempt which is exactly the opposite of low self esteem, and not in a good way. If you keep forcing a one-armed man to play the guitar, he will either come to hate himself or come to hate you and everything you stand for. That’s latter is not an example of low self-esteem; it’s an example of alienation.
Predictably, I have never had any need for algebra in my adult life, ever, even though I like to build things and work with my hands. But the experience of mindless compulsory coerced failure has never left me. It made me cynical, skeptical, and untrusting, stubborn and truculent. These can be good qualities, in balance with others. But I agree with Hacker: it’s time to de-emphasize algebra in the curriculum. By all means teach it, maybe even make everyone take a crack at it. But let it go: not everyone can do it, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
UPDATE: I want to make it clear I have no objection to algebra per se: I wish I understood it, wish I had access to that kind of thinking. Nor do I think pure utility is a good index of a subject’s worthiness. I agree with Hacker’s argument in the sense that compelling algebra is a bad idea. I assume–and Hacker doe sno offer good evidence–that there are many people for whom algebra is at best a chore akin to memorizing the Presidents in succession, and others like myself for whom it’s an exercise in futility.
As a side note, it’s interesting that I have a brother who is my obverse–terrible at reading and writing, startlingly, embarrassingly so, but good enough at math to hold degrees in both mechanical and civil engineering, and work for more than a decade as city engineer of a major western resort town. He was always bad at reading, from a very young age, in exactly the same way I was bad at math. He’s a smart, personable, capable guy who still gets little pleasure from reading. I’m not at all sure what to make of that. It could be nothing more than coincidence.