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Algebra? The how, what, and why we learn

September 7, 2012 12:10 am



IN HIS Aug. 28 op-ed ["The 'x' factor: Do we all need to study algebra?"], Harry Jones concluded that students don't need to study algebra because once they have completed the course they never again have need for the information they learned.

His opinion may be influenced by his admission that he struggled through algebra courses in high school and college and was basically a "D student." Perhaps his opinion is also affected by a cynical humorist he admires, Fran Lebowitz, whom he reports as saying, "After high school there is no such thing as algebra." He was not quite accurate on the quote because references indicate that she said: "In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra."

My correction is not nit-picking. The inaccuracy amplifies a cavalier attitude toward a vital subject. This is a symptom of many problems in our country's educational school system.

Perhaps one major flaw in algebra opponents' position is that they fail to recognize that the real purpose of education is for students to learn to think, analyze, understand, and solve a wide variety of problems that are often complex. To do this, the more knowledge one has, the more he or she can draw from a "storehouse of information." And the more disciplines we know, the better we understand what information is needed to solve a problem.


How does a high school student know what he wants to do in life until he gets a taste of the multitude of jobs, professions, and ways of life that are open to him? If he doesn't get a taste of algebra, how will he know it is hard, or useful, or something he may not want to pursue? What about a student who doesn't want to go to college but likes to build things--houses, perhaps? For him, algebra may not be algebra but rather a necessary tool to build a house.

The same applies to other studies. A dietitian might not need to know and memorize the Krebs cycle, but he does need to have chemistry and physiology to understand the composition, metabolism, and value of food.

But the major flaw in Jones' suggestion is the implication that any subject we don't use often is something we don't need. What should we do about the study of chemistry, physics, biological systems, trigonometry, earth science, Latin, the history of the Peloponnesian War or World War I, or diagramming a sentence in English? Since we don't use any of these much, if at all, should we stop teaching them?

Then the question is: Where do you start? Where do you stop teaching disciplines that make up an educated person's knowledge? What would we use as a basis to eliminate areas of study without knowing what work we finally will choose to follow in life? For those of us who are tone deaf, should we stop teaching music? For those of us who are not good at physical training, should we stop having physical education? It appears some states have done away with music and physical education, and the result seems to be overweight or obese people who think rap music is the only music that has ever been composed.


Should we eliminate areas of knowledge to meet the needs of people who want to settle for a "D"? Should we set our standards that low? This brings to mind the juvenile thinking expressed in Sam Cooke song "Wonderful World":

Don't know much about history.

Don't know much biology.

Don't know much about a science book.

Don't know much about the French I took.

But I do know that I love you.

And I know that if you love me too.

What a wonderful world this would be.

Would it be a wonderful world if our students don't know much about the subjects they have taken? The words convey the idea that youthful emotion is more important than education.

This leads me to raise a different question that gets to the value of the subjects we teach: Not whether we need algebra, but how we teach algebra or chemistry or music or any subject. Do we continue to teach the way classes have been always been taught, and with more or less the same curricula used for decades or longer? Do we assume that everyone who takes biology will become a doctor, dentist, nurse or a scientist of some sort? Should the person who wants a career in law or journalism or computer science be required to take the same courses as those who will pursue a science career?

It is important for our educational system to provide a well-rounded education that exposes students to many different disciplines. Most students won't know what they want to be when they grow up unless they have been exposed to a broad array of knowledge.


Another question for our educational system is not so much what we teach but how we teach it. Must we teach everything as one-size-fits-all, or should we tailor our courses for the value they will have for that group of students? Years ago, as chairman of the biology department at a women's college, I recommended that it offer a general biology for biology/science majors and an alternate general biology for non-biology/science majors. The emphasis could be directed to how the student will ultimately put the information to use. Non-biology/science majors could have more health, nutrition, and environmental information rather than learn all the categories of the animal and plant kingdoms, or the physiology and anatomy of the earthworm or jellyfish.

The same could be done with mathematics by having math for science or engineering students versus math for those students who will be English or art majors. This would not be remedial math or math for slow learners. This would be a specially designed course based on how a group of students will use the information in nursing, construction, art, accounting, or information technology. The goal should be to make the information useful to the learner and applicable to his future needs. Too many good teachers are bound by outdated or irrelevant curricula. Rarely, if ever, are they allowed to deviate from a standard curriculum.

Our educational system needs to be not only thorough but relevant. Under normal conditions students forget a significant percentage of the information they are exposed to unless they can apply it or it is of interest to them. Relevancy is a significant factor and it could influence students to work for an "A" rather than settle for a "D."

Harvey S. Gold is adjunct professor of environmental science at Germanna Community College.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.