Fuel for Rants

May 9, 2006 | General | By: Mark VandeWettering

Richard Cohen thinks that algebra is highly overrated.

Here’s the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know — never mind want to know — how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later — or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note — or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

Steven Johnson comes close to making the same point, but actually  has some real perspective:

In the offices of the future, which skill set will today’s kids draw upon in their day-to-day tasks? Mastering interfaces, searching for information, maintaining virtual social networks and multitasking? Or doing algebra? I think the answer is obvious. It’s a good bet that 99% of kids will never use algebra again after they graduate from high school. And yet thanks to the testing establishment, we know a staggering amount about the algebraic skills of today’s teenagers but next to nothing about the skills they’re actually going to use.

Johnson argues that teenagers who play (for instance) massively multiplayer online games develop a broad set of skills that might be more applicable to their employment than algebra, and I think it would be hard to disagree at some level.  After all, most people do not get paid to innovate, or even produce, but merely to move information (often in the form of money) from one place to another.   But I think the bigger question is “how do educate children to create a better society, as opposed to a better work force.”   No amount of playing Ragnarok online is going to result in the cotton gin, the steam engine, or the polio vaccine.   For that we need people willing to learn and apply the methodologies of science and mathematics.

Kenneth Silber’s article provided the two links above.

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Comments

Comment from Dan Lyke
Time 5/10/2006 at 11:26 am

As Feynman pointed out, it’s not that you develop an internal language for these structures, it’s that you’re able to communicate them to your peers. While strategy games and MMORPGs do teach a lot of interesting things about resource management, tactics and, yes, even collaboration, it will be the ability to communicate these lessons, and then to find ways to proceduralize them (whether that’s through social systems or computer ones) that will have the value.

Perhaps the game will come that will get people collaboratively managing large-scale economies in real-time, but it ain’t there yet, and while the skills being taught are real, I’m not sure that they’re as transferrable to the real world as the current generation of Douglas Rushkoffs would have us believe.

Algebra is important not because we use it directly, but because it gives us a structure in which to communicate something that otherwise we would merely pass off as “intuition”. And if these folks are really making a living without using, say, a spreadsheet, then I weep for our economy.

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