the value of algebra

One of the things that unsettles me the most is when people revel in their own ignorance. They go around proudly proclaiming that they never bothered to learn A and they turned out ok and happy, so clearly A is not important to know. It’s a roundabout way of arguing that it’s ok to be bad at A because secretly A isn’t worth it. Of course, since most of the public discussion about this happens in the media, it’s invariably mathematics and science that bear the brunt of it. The latest “contribution” to the fire is Richard Cohen’s article on algebra.

Cohen isn’t good at math. He can handle “basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages),” but barely made it through algebra and geometry and then turned his back on mathematics forever. He boldly asserts that math should be on a need-to-know basis because “most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator.” The modern computer age has made many mechanical jobs obsolete, and with them, many skills, it seems. Being able to do percentages seems pretty important to me, given our tax system, but I suppose we have computers to do our taxes for us as well — why bother knowing how to check if its correct?

It’s not really the uselessness of math that Cohen is interested it — he wants to establish a pecking order among disciplines, at the top of which is writing. Because to him, computers are math, and computers cannot “write a column or even a thank-you note — or reason even a little bit” (leave that aside for a moment, you AI-fiends), math is inferior to writing. Someone should send him back to a rhetoric class and make him reread his Aristotle.

Cohen’s final surge off the tracks of reason is a lovely piece of anecdotal evidence:

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. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.

Perhaps a remedial logic class is in order as well, although I suppose philosophy is equally wasted on Cohen. The lovely canard of the hapless math geek who can’t manage to understand any other subject is cheap and tawdry. Is this the best that he can do to muster an argument?

Cohen privileges his fear of mathematics, implicitly claiming that this fear is unique to the subject

There are those of us who know the sweat, the panic, the trembling, cold fear that comes from the teacher casting an eye in your direction and calling you to the blackboard. It is like being summoned to your own execution.

Oh poor poor Richard Cohen. I shed a tear for you. Mathematics emasculated you and now you will have your revenge. You’ll get those nerds back. Gobi Desert! Ha ha ha!

It’s true that some people are not good at math. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be good at math, but for whatever reason either through their own lack of interest or a poor background from grade school on up, it doesn’t click for them. And maybe there should be a debate as to whether algebra should be required for graduation. This column is not debate — it’s a shoddily assembled collection of logical fallacies and cheap shots. It’s true that a computer would never be able to write this column. But who would want it to?

A middle-school student I know told me recently that the two subjects that you really don’t need to know are science and history. I asked her why and she said “because you don’t need them for your life.” I tried to argue with her that yes, you don’t need them to live, but imagine how much richer a life you will live because you know them. History and science give you the why of things; they let you understand how the world works, how to tell when someone is feeding you a line about politics or the big bang. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then no knowledge is safety! Big Brother would be proud of you, Richard Cohen. Have you read any Orwell?

Update : via Kevin Drum.