What is the Value of Richard Cohen?

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.

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11 Responses to What is the Value of Richard Cohen?

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  2. Blasterhappy says:

    My worst subject in High School was also Algebra. I failed it once and took it again in summer school. In summer school the class was shorter and faster and I found myself with a high B average at the end of the course due to a teacher that actually cared. If one has to convince themselves that teaching math is worth it, shouldn’t be teaching it. A positive mental attitude goes a long way in the teaching profession and I applaude every teacher out there that put forth the effort to help our young people today in realizing that. To those that say you don’t need it or it’s worthless…I call you Oxygen Bandits and you should bow out now before you corrupt anymore young minds. These kids have enough to worry about in their young lives than to have some jerk with a degree in under water basket weaving telling them otherwise.

  3. Tom Galloway says:

    Two other bits from Cohen’s rant;

    “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.”

    Interesting “proof” (he goes on to cite a single example). Particularly given that 4-time Western NC HS math champion me had the highest SAT scores in both Verbal and Math at my school, currently make my living as a writer, and am enough of a polymath in his prefered areas of knowledge to repeatedly pass the Jeopardy! tryout test. Not to mention that in my considerable experience, there are vastly larger percentages of scientists and engineers who are good to excellent writers and knowledgable about the liberal arts than there are liberal arts types who have clue one about math and science. Heck, I know many more math/sci/eng types who have substantial personal libraries than I do liberal arts types who have such.

    “Look, Gabriela, I am not anti-algebra. It has its uses, I suppose, and I think it should be available for people who want to take it.”

    Why, yes, I suppose it does “have its uses”. Perhaps Mr. Cohen would care to go for a week without anything which knowledge of algrebra was necessary to its design, implementation, and manufacture. Free hint; his example of his most useful high school course of “Typing” would no longer be possible.

  4. The way he feels about Algebra – that was the way I felt about English. I had to take GCSE English (age 16) _three times_ until I passed. And there’s nothing really wrong with my actual English, my teachers were just completely incapable of explaining what it was they wanted from me – I was, so far as I can tell, supposed to just pick things up by osmosis.

  5. CounterProductive says:

    In my case Dave, you’re preaching to the choir. While I wound up with a psych degree, my studies began in aero engineering (long story). Ignore the clown. I don’t think his statements validate a thing about people who hate math. Math can be applied to everything. The very elements and all we know aas reality is based on math (i.e., number of electrons and such), let alone balancing equations, etc. I have fun doing math and have turned it into a career. I am growing to appreciate verbage as I age, as I was much weaker in that growing up than math. To deny the need for math liken Cohen does, is beyond ignorant. You don’t have to like it or be great at it, but math is much more elemental to us understanding the reality around us than verbal skills. And that’s not knocking verbal intelligence. That’s important too. It’s easy for mr to see math in just about everything.

  6. Vicky says:

    I came close to failing Math on numerous occasions, however I was a straight A student in Chemistry. I really feel the problem with not understanding Math all boils down to how it is being taught. When I was in school my next door neighbor was an engineer at Catapiller. He tried to help me with Math homework on numerous occasions. Most of the time he would indicate that he could get to the answer but not the way they wanted us to. This was also the experience of a friend of mine who’s father was an engineer with GM.

  7. Greg Burgas says:

    I always aced math, and I still say it’s useless!

    Okay, I’m kidding. I read this column in astonishment, because, let’s face it, algebra is not that difficult. What Cohen seems to be saying is that we should only learn things we enjoy and if we don’t do well in something, well then, we should give them diplomas anyway based on the great work they do in the subjects they enjoy. I hated science and math in high school, but I took them (even calculus), worked hard at them, and aced them, and years later, I find myself digging science and math a lot more than when I was young. This girl failed algebra SIX times – it’s not THAT hard to pass a class – maybe not ace it, but pass it. This is the kind of crap that goes on in schools – we want all these kids to feel good about themselves, and if they fail, it’s obviously everyone else’s fault but theirs. I don’t want to go old-school here, but school, last time I checked, is supposed to be hard. Isn’t anything that’s worth something difficult?

  8. Charlie says:

    Considering that I make my living by the use of math every day I must say that I’m suprised to find that it is utterly useless. No longer will I use it to perform reconciliations, rollforwards or other such nonsense. All these things necessary for the checks and balances on companies can be supported with a well written sentence or two. I must write him and thank him from freeing me from the tedium of my useless work.

    Speaking of which…anyone have a piece of paper I can borrow? The engineers that designed the paper plant used math…..

  9. Patrick says:

    But doesn’t saying “Wouldn’t you rather have the option of not using math” justify teaching anything, because who knows, I might want to use it. Also, the jack and spare tire analogy is faulty, I don’t think there will ever be an emergency where not knowing the quadratic equation is going to result in you getting stranded somewhere.

    I think math up through middle school is worth teaching, but the stuff taught in high school is too specialized for the average person to be a required class. I’m not saying throw it out entirely, but there are a lot of subjects I’d consider more important to learn than math. For example, film studies is barely taught in high schools, and that’s something that students would definitely use in their everyday lives. It’s something I love and value, but I don’t think it needs to be a requirement for every student. And I don’t see how you could feel differently about math.

    And by the way, I did quite well in math, took through Calculus, and got a 710 on the Math SAT. I could do it, but I got no joy from it, nor did I feel it was worth learning.

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