Do We Really Need to Learn Algebra?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Nicholson Baker makes a case against requiring algebra 2 and asks “why, if math is so great and timeless and beautiful, do millions of people hate it so much?”

During his conversation with Leonard brought up a 2002 survey that found a very high correlation between people who took and succeeded algebra 2 and those who made money and were successful later in life. Baker said, “It isn’t more than a statistical correlation, but people pounced on this and said, my god! Algebra 2! It’s the mystic door! If we force every child go through this door successfully, if we make them do it and we make them succeed, then they’ll all be above average and the world will be a better place.” But he argues, that making it a requirement for everyone for college admission is “not just a waste of time but a real source of suffering for many people.” Baker noted that it shouldn't be removed entirely from the high school curriculum, but that it shouldn't be required for every student, especially for otherwise good students who are struggling to pass it. "I think kids should be compelled to take some you get a sense of what's out there and whether you have a head for it," he said.

Many callers and commenters defended algebra, saying it teaches problem-solving and intellectual discipline, but a number of people agree with Baker that not every student should be forced to take algebra 2 if they're struggling to pass it.

Nicholson Baker's article “Wrong Answer” is in the September 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.


Nicholson Baker

Comments [40]

JT from LI

Math, like a lot of things, requires some effort to learn. Have you seen how many hours kids put into sports and video games in order to improve? Sometimes that has nothing to do with love of the games, its about topping your friends or fitting in. Devote a little bit of that effort to math and you'll master it.

Aug. 22 2013 01:34 PM
tom LI

Truth and Beauty - you make some good point, but you are lumping everyone, every child into a very, very small box. You sound like too many school career counselors, limited in scope, limited in ability to SEE the child before you and notice not every kid is going to, or wants to work in a limited number of visiblly obvious fields.

If the numbers are there, that algebra 2 is not worth the effort on both parties, let's lose it in favor of another subject, perhaps more challenging, but more relevant and dare I say interesting to the teen mind.

I hear a lot of adults bemoaning this notion that students should be stimulated by school and the subjects they its a bad thing for students to want to learn.

Apologies for typos, tablet keyboard, and WNYC system are quirky...

Aug. 22 2013 01:19 PM
ivan obregon from nyc

I got good enough grades in Algebra 1, Algebra ll, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, and Statistics (99% average- a brag-point for life! sorry.))))0) , apart from Physics, Chemistry and two semesters of freshman college Economics ( or numerical nonsense), and.......most of it was just a waste of time (like my four years of "Latin"). This author points out that throughout educational history, mathematics was never the central or, like today, the core component of learning (just another part of it) except for.....duh, math and some science ( even then not nearly as much as today for pre-meds either) majors until politicians and bureaucrats and the always ponderous 'educational experts" ( Education PHD's, so go figure) decided we should all be engineers if we "wanted" to be. Most of what I - and most people- needed to know to use in life- ratios/percentage conversions/operations/basic problem-solving I learned by elementary school. Much of the rest should be for kids who like and want or need this information for the love of it or for their careers. Instead , we sacrifice too much of education and the love of learning among the young on some pompous ass's idea of a mental altar for...."everyone's children". Same with lots of literature ( poetry is for poets, ok, not for those who hate it, introduce, then let people choose if they want to study it more but don't force-feed antipathy) and other "compulsory requisites" of.....educational theology and universalizing idiocy in the name of....."knowledge". Spoon-feed it if you "must" but stop making it the criteria of "intelligence" and yes, I liked ( but rarely loved) it enough to do well enough to succeed better than good enough at it but saw that too many, always the MAJORITY, hated it and that spoils the trip....for everyone who actually wants to be 'there" in spite of the usual lousy books and even worse...... math "teach"ers who rarely know how to teach "their" subject.

Math is largely just.....another freaking problem to solve as another obstacle( door) to learning opportunity in our educational system.

Aug. 22 2013 01:18 PM
Mary from New Jersey

I loved all my math classes in HS. I went on to college and became a Spanish Lit major. Later in life, I went on for an MBA and my high school pre-calc saved me. I think all students need to be at least exposed to algebra, geometry and calculus. Although the concept may not be "politically correct", perhaps we need to develop classes in High School for "not math majors". We could stand to have a technical / journeyman career track with sufficient math that can leads to good jobs in manufacturing and high tech. As was mentioned on the show, algebra and calculus concepts help students develop problem solving skills for how to tackle a situation when not all data is available. Lastly, in order to have an informed electorate, we need citizens to understand that data doesn't lie, but how you can lie with data. Exposing students to concepts on how to analyze "differentials" and "rates of change" is vitally important. I agree that 4 years of these subjects may be too much as a rule for everyone, but sometimes, you don't know what you don't know, and students might choose to opt out not realizing that there may well be practical applications for the knowledge later in life. I think the burden is on educators to make the subject relevant to all populations of students.

Aug. 22 2013 01:10 PM
JohnM from New Jersey

When I was learning algebra, geometry, trig and calculus, I was always more interested when i was taught how and why these techniques were developed and how they are used today. Some teachers were able to do this and and I did well. Other teachers just presented the techniques as abstract concepts and I did not do as well. Students want to know why they are learning these subjects.

Aug. 22 2013 01:08 PM
Meredith from nyc

Could the screener taking calls tell callers, 'please don't say, thank you for taking my call'? There is nothing wrong with screeners telling callers to just go right to their comment or question--which is what listeners want to hear. Let's try to get rid of this irritating, time wasting habit. Why thank the show? They want your call to use--it adds to the show--it's not a great favor. Also don't say 'love your show and am frequent listener---the lady who just called said all 3 things! I turned her off and so missed her comment. Then I forget to turn the show back on for a while. So many callers on various talk shows do this--it gets to be annoying and tedious. Must be due to nervousness or something.

Aug. 22 2013 01:06 PM
tom LI

Seems people are making a lot of unsubstantiated claims about what math does or does not do for kids, and/or adults. Can anyone draw a straight line to their claims and taking algebra? I doubt it.

We continue to learn that not every human, child or adult, learns the same as the next, or the five next people....and math in all its forms is one of those subjects. Yet we still want to teach thru the same old regimented ways that we know fail a good portion of the children in school. But as soon as someone suggests some change - we hear its wrong to address the very things we know are wrong with this old style of teaching children.

Most of it too often sounds like, I had to suffer thru it, so should these kids!

Aug. 22 2013 01:04 PM
james andrea from Brick, NJ

Also a factor - WHEN subjects are taught. Teenagers are NOT morning people with even less-challenging subjects; some adult thinks their minds are fresher then and double jeopardy for any success. Younger kids are/can be more absorbent to math concepts.

Aug. 22 2013 01:03 PM
John A

Ignorance allows politicians and other salesmen to lie to you with numbers. I understand that people dislike being lied to. Remember the ARM mortgage crisis taking advantage of the poor?

Aug. 22 2013 01:01 PM
Josh from Brooklyn

We should combine math and science after the first year like they now do with English and History.

Aug. 22 2013 01:00 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Mr. Baker seems not to understand how textbooks are used by good teachers. Good teachers can take a blank piece of cardboard and make it seem interesting. The use of a textbook in conjunction with good teaching is what counts.

jgarbuz from Queens: May I suggest that you read the letters that Thomas Jefferson sent to his daughter, encouraging her to learn as many subjects as possible.

There are SO many things to learn in this world that children who don't learn everything they can in school, including mathematics, grow up to be very ignorant. In addition, school is where children are exposed to new things, things their parents may be ill-equipped to teach them, and they may find that they have an aptitude for the subject and it may wind up being the basis of their life's work - but they'll never know unless they try it. I had an acquaintance many centuries ago who was an art student who excelled in pen and ink drawings. She was complaining that she had to learn other techniques in school. I told her that some day she might want to create a work that was a combination of several techniques but that she wouldn't have a clue where to begin unless she had the initial exposure that the school was trying to provide for her.

Again, everything in the world is interconnected (including the geometry and spacial relations involved in sculpture), and the more we learn, the more opportunities open for us.

Aug. 22 2013 01:00 PM
Peggy in Brooklyn from Brooklyn

I too had a problem with Algebra in HS, it took me 4 years to pass 9th Grade Regents and was lucky to graduate. Accounting and Excel are a breeze though and are closer to life skills than Algebra.

My daughter has the same issues and after innumerable hours of study and tutoring - she just doesn't get it either. Though she managed to graduate from a performing arts HS she has been stuck in 4 semesters of remedial Math in college. Which happens to be a no-credit, high cost class before she can even take the required college math class. She is now in jeopardy of dropping out because of this missing credit - it has nothing to do with dumbing down...more like Algebra hazing!

P.S. she is a drama major

Aug. 22 2013 01:00 PM
Juan from Mount Vernon

How much of requiring all this math & science is a result of the response to Russia's Sputnik and the race to the moon?

Aug. 22 2013 12:57 PM

I moved to North Carolina as a senior in the late 1970s. I had all of the requirements to graduate in California and be admitted to any school. I signed up for all of my classes for my senior year in NC, graduated with a 4.0 average, but ended up having to take Algebra 2 in summer school to be accepted into any NC University. This apparently was to weed out minorities.

Aug. 22 2013 12:56 PM
Tess from CT

I agree w/ your expert guest. After A's & B's in math all through elementary school, I immediately started failing math Pre-Algebra in Middle School. But when I got to take Geometry in 8th Grade I went right back to A's & B's. Only to start failing again after Geometry. Geometry I could SEE and Envision what the teacher was talking about.
This "math" failure of mine has since affected me in college and my career path. What a disaster for me.

Aug. 22 2013 12:56 PM
Tess from CT

I agree w/ your expert guest. After A's & B's in math all through elementary school, I immediately started failing math Pre-Algebra in Middle School. But when I got to take Geometry in 8th Grade I went right back to A's & B's. Only to start failing again after Geometry. Geometry I could SEE and Envision what the teacher was talking about.
This "math" failure of mine has since affected me in college and my career path. What a disaster for me.

Aug. 22 2013 12:56 PM
John A

I could be available to tutor most precollege math, if there is a safe way to exchange my email Offline. No charge to the financially distressed.

Aug. 22 2013 12:56 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Lars

But we all know that there are "Lies, Damned lies, and Statistics.";)
Sure statistical methods require a sound knowledge of algebra, but then, many ancient societies built amazing structures without knowledge of algebra nor statistics.

Aug. 22 2013 12:55 PM
SC from Brooklyn

Somewhat related to this is the lack of value for Humanities related careers.

Aug. 22 2013 12:54 PM
Rob from Manhattan, Chelsea

Algebra II, bane of my last year of high school: I excelled in English, Creative Writing, etc. (I work in the theater now.)

Did well in Algebra I, thought I could ace Algebra II -- I left basic Algebra and went to Algebra II Advanced. Big mistake. Almost flunked my last year and would have had to repeat Algebra. The other kids left me in the dust. Came down to one test in Algebra, whether I would graduate or not ... passed by a few points.

Nightmare and unnecessary. Have to say, I liked the teacher, though.

Aug. 22 2013 12:54 PM
Nick from UWS

Why do we need to teach this stuff? Because we have in this country the most financially illiterate and incompetent generation in history, making one bad financial decision after another and forcing society to pay for it. Children need to be completely versant in all basic forms of mathematics and financial knowledge. What teenage knows how to balance a checkbook, knows how insurance work? If we dumb down our people we get the society we deserve.

Aug. 22 2013 12:54 PM
Daniel from Munich

YES! Exactly! I was one of those teachers---teaching math in an NYC public school to students who did not want to be there. I don't think this applies only to advanced algebra. We should require students learn basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Beyond that we should let them choose the rest of their subjects as they wish.

Aug. 22 2013 12:53 PM
Stephen Schwarz from Jersey City

Guest misses the point.

Learning algebra changes the way the mind works and how we perceive the world and the way the world is represented by data.

I almost never use algebra for calculation, but my mind uses it daily in the way I analyze data.

Aug. 22 2013 12:51 PM
Lars from Williamsburg

I teach statistics at the college level.... students use their algebra skills a lot there. Without it, I would have to teach them algebra!

Aug. 22 2013 12:50 PM

As I listen to Mr. Baker I identify one of the biggest problems with education in this country: there are people like Mr. Baker that don't acknowledge the importance of it.
If we decided that anything that could be "hard" to learn should not required, we would advocate for ignorance, I believe, and laziness.

So many things we learn in high school might not be obviously applied, but they sharpen the mind, they help us think.

Aug. 22 2013 12:48 PM
carolita from nyc

Perhaps algebra is something that needs one on one teaching. I was terrible at algebra, but when I got a tutor, everything went well. I think it's not the subject, but the way it's taught.

Aug. 22 2013 12:48 PM

So, now I'm listening to this guy, and his argument sounds like someone saying, "OH, don't make kids read literature. Just make sure they can spell and know the parts of speech."

I don't think is "math-phobia" is a legitimate support for his thesis.

Aug. 22 2013 12:46 PM
Larry from Brooklyn

Wow. It is hard for students to think that letters can stand for numerical values. Why expect students to think in the abstract in a quantitative way? Sure, they'll never need that.

In our culture, why is it OK for students to say they're not good at math? Would we be as comfortable if they said they were not good at other subjects? Why should they not have to work hard to understand challenging topics? It's no wonder that so many American students fear STEM... they are told that if you have to work hard at it you just must be not good at it. Why not BECOME good at it? I have no doubts that there are better ways of teaching it...

By the way, the subtext here that there are learning styles is unsubstantiated by research.

Aug. 22 2013 12:44 PM
Neil from Austin

Algebra was invented Kharazmi who was a Persian. (Persia had been invaded by Arabs and people had to speak Arabic and Arabicize their names, hence he is often called al-Kharazmi.) BTW, most "Islamic" science was really contributed by Persians.

Aug. 22 2013 12:44 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Truth and Beauty

So let's teach kids how to buy things in stores. How to figure out what is the best buy for their money. Let them read labels and write down different sizes and prices for different quantities. And then ask them to try to figure out what is best for the amount of money they have to spend. And then, when they are confused, show them how to use principles from algebra to get the right mix for the best price.
Start with the practical, and then bring in the theory.

Aug. 22 2013 12:44 PM

We need algebra. We can't keep trying to dumb down our school curriculum.

Aug. 22 2013 12:40 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

jgarbuz from Queens:

Do you realize that Algebra is how we determine which size product is the better buy when we walk into a shop? (x/10=4/12 solve for x) We actually use, or should use, Algebra on a daily basis whether we know it or not.

The only caveat to teaching it is to make it relevant to daily life - or at least to point out to students when it is relevant in daily life.

Aug. 22 2013 12:39 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Truth & Beauty

Fine. Let's teach kids how to use a spreadsheet. No problem. As long as it is practical, I'm for it. In using spreadsheets they'll have to incidentally learn some algebraic principles. We should teach the practical, and let the theory be used to support the practical, not the other way around.
Now we teach theory, and only bring in practical applications later. It should be the other way around. Teach practical applications and bring in theory later to show *why* these things work as they do.

Aug. 22 2013 12:33 PM
Mark from Maplewood, NJ

The essay proposes something which is, frankly, a crime. The only people who want a populace who do not understand mathematics beyond "1 + 1" are those who want to fool that populace.

The suggestion from the author, is just another step down the road to denying evolution and climate change. And, while the author may respond with what he thinks is a clever comeback - ignorance is not clever.

If someone said, "OH, there are too many big words in this book", I doubt the author would argue against expanding one's vocabulary. Same thing.

Aug. 22 2013 12:30 PM
John A

Ignorance powers too much in current society. Algebra needs to be kept to support basic high school science, or did we need high school?

Aug. 22 2013 12:27 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I can't stand this constant debate over "should we learn this, should we learn that." We should learn as much as possible.

On this planet, there are so many facets of life, that one may never know when certain kinds of knowledge or certain skills may be useful. I remember years ago I worked for a company and the vice president asked me to do a spreadsheet. I analyzed the data she gave me and determined that I could not do it the way she wanted because she had given me three dimensions worth of data to put on a two-dimensional spreadsheet, but I could do it another way. When I went to explain it to her, she thought I was lying (to get out of doing the work!) and went to consult with the bookkeeper, whom she trusted more. He told her I was correct. This whole incident stemmed from the fact that she didn't pay attention in Geometry class and had no idea what X, Y and Z axes meant. Pathetic!

Let's teach our children that everything they learn is important and may come into play in unexpected ways in their future because everything on the planet is interconnected.

Aug. 22 2013 12:19 PM
Lissnah from NJ

No we really don't need need algebra. We need copyediting.

Aug. 22 2013 12:18 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Everything should be related to practicality. Overwhelmingly, most people will never have to solve a problem using algebra in their entire lives. However, kids should be shown just how computer game graphics, for example, use equations to "draw' all those beautiful pictures onscreen. A very simple Basic program of just a few lines can be written by kids who can then immediately run and watch those programs using simple equations draw circles and other geometric shapes on their screens.
Kids have to SEE the practical applications of algebra. Otherwise, why indeed are you torturing these kids with all this stuff most will never, ever use. Ever.

Aug. 22 2013 11:40 AM

1. The US is the only country where kids are forced to learn arithmetic for five years. No wonder they hate anything associated with the word "math".

2. The same people who write these articles about uselessness of math scream the loudest about lack of STEM skills in this country and argue for importation of "cheap geniuses".

3. The picture accompanying this segment is that of linear algebra - a very specialized subject taught in colleges to math graduates, not in middle schools to teenagers. Kind of tells you about the level of math education by WNYC staff.

Aug. 22 2013 08:09 AM
Ed H from Larchmont

In using a computer at work (as the programs get more complex) a person needs lots of abstracting ability, also to understand how the computer system they are working with is set up. This kind of abstracting ability is a side-effect of studying math.

Aug. 22 2013 05:54 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.