In the Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen asks the question, “What Is the Value of Algebra?”. And then he answers it:
You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it.
So there you have it, folks. Math? Worthless.
When I was training to be a math teacher, I heard from many folks about how worthless math is. In fact, the quickest way to get someone to tell you how much they hate math is to tell them you’re interested in being a math teacher. Some of them would go on at great lengths, and the song was always the same: they hated math, they never saw any purpose for it, and they’ve never needed it in their lives.
There was also one other thing in common: everyone who ever told me that math was worthless couldn’t do it.
I’m not saying anything bad about people who don’t like math or who can’t seem to do math. But to decree something as worthless just because you can’t do it? I can’t play any musical instruments, and I may never learn how to. Although I would like to know how, neither the world nor I will suffer much if I never do. And yet, I can’t imagine telling a musician that what he does is worthless and has never had any value to me.
One of the people who told me that math was useless was an Education professor. It was his job to teach people how to become teachers. Since it was an education class it was attended by aspiring teachers in all different fields, but I was the only math teacher in this particular class. I was also the only person who, in front of all the other aspiring teachers, was told his area of expertise was useless. This same professor demonstrated on at least two occasions his inability to do math.
For a long time, math (particularly Geometry) was regarded along with Latin as being Something that Made You Smart. Literally. It was believed that these two subjects strengthened the brain in general, that, all else being equal, someone who knew Latin was going to be just plain smarter in general than someone who didn’t. This was called “Faculty Psychology” and was ultimately disproven. The baby, however, has been thrown out with the bathwater, and because math didn’t do what people thought it did, it’s now assumed that it doesn’t do anything.
The society of math teachers is partly to blame for this, by the way. They have allowed themselves to be bullied into teaching their discipline according to the standards of people who dislike their discipline in the first place. They’ve faddishly focused on “real-life situations and problems,” confirming the idea that, unless a particular topic is of use in a specific way that I might encounter, it’s worthless. P.E. teachers are allowed to say that their subject develops fitness, sportsmanship, and teamwork. English teachers can happily claim that they teach communication, abstract thought, and language analysis. But math teachers are forbidden to claim that their subject teaches anything except the mechanics of mathematics. And math teachers have bought into this hook, line, and sinker.
Richard Cohen continues:
I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time — the only proof I’ve ever seen of divine intervention — somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again.
Well, color me surprised to hear this “confession”. What Mr. Cohen might be surprised to hear is that it was my story as well. I had a series of bad math teachers in high school. I did not do well in math, I too hated it, saw no purpose in it, and so forth. I too barely got out of Geometry alive. Unlike Mr. Cohen, though, I let myself get talked into taking high school Trigonometry. I was told by the teacher, who knew I’d had trouble in her Geometry class, that she would help me out. She didn’t, and I ended up flunking the class. After that I avoided math as much as possible.
Let’s continue with Mr. Cohen:
Gabriela, sooner or later someone’s going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence.
And you say that English taught you reasoning? It didn’t teach you well, Richard. Since I was afraid of math, when I went to college, I got an English degree. I don’t remember what I had planned for it. My focus for my degree was Creative Writing, and I was well received in that area by my instructors and peers. Writing a readable English sentence doesn’t seem to be a problem for me.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I started to realize I had fooled myself. When I prepared for the GRE exam, the analytical reasoning section was my favorite. I found the practice tests for it to be fun. I noticed that I did use Algebra in my life. I remembered my only college math class, one I aced, and even helped another student get through as well. I was good at it. I went back to college and found out I could do math, and could do it well, and I even enjoyed it. I took Trigonometry again at the college level and was amazed that I could ever have failed it before. How could I? There’s only, like, six things you need to know to master the whole course!
I had let a handful of people convince me that this subject was something I could never do, which made me, as a defense, declare it to be beyond my reach and worthless. I don’t imagine this was the only or even a major factor in where I am today, but I do know that I would like to have approached college the first time around without this mental handicap.
For a while, I decided I wanted to help people who had encountered what I did, which is why I studied to be a high school math teacher. I ultimately didn’t pursue that path for a number of reasons, chief of which was my discovery that if you wish to teach a subject (or learn it) an American high school is one of the worst places in the world to try to do so. But that’s another story.
I would love to tell people out there the value of Algebra. It does have value. It has value beyond making you a buck or helping you be a super genius. Don’t listen to Richard Cohen, who failed at something and now wants you to fail as well, so that he can be justified in hating and fearing that which he wasn’t good at. He doesn’t care about your well-being, he simply wants to justify his own beliefs. Don’t let him or anyone else convince you to close a door in your life for no good reason. I’ve been on both sides of this matter, and I can tell you which side sucks more.
Maybe you won’t ever use any math in your life. But wouldn’t you rather make that decision for yourself than some typewriter-slinger at the Washington Post? Wouldn’t you rather have the option of not using math? Hell, I keep a jack and a spare tire in my car and hope I’ll never have to use them. I’d rather have them and not need them than need them and not have them. Don’t deny yourself similar options. And don’t let some fool try to talk you into doing so just so he can feel better about himself.