Let me begin with an admission: I struggled with algebra in high school. Impenetrable polynomial problems pranced in my mind, easily eluding my clumsy conceptual clasp. I could not find the roots of a quadratic equation, factor a difference of two squares, or even simplify my senselessly long test answers.
Presently, I am a graduate student studying theoretical particle physics, and, in retrospect, I can quite easily say that an education in proper algebra was essential to my academic success. In fact, the general study of algebra is a crucial component of every student’s education.
There are those, such as recent New York Times editorial contributors, who dissent with this idea. They claim that algebra unnecessarily masks young talent and depletes our intellectual resources. In its place, these individuals propose the study of more applied quantitative mathematics: statistics, economics, combinatorics, and “machine tool mathematics.” They argue that algebraic reasoning is not as important for our advanced industrial economy as quantitative reasoning.
These critics unfortunately confuse “not as important as” with “not important at all.” Algebra forms the metaphysical ground which every single quantitative science is built upon. Algebra was principal in the development of Hooke’s law in engineering and physics, the compound interest formula in finance and economics, and the rate-of-blood-flow equation in biology and physiology. Who will theoretically develop the mathematics of phenomena if we are no longer teaching algebra? How will we mentally equip the future Feynmans, Keyneses, Jobses, and Edisons?
But a lack of algebraic reasoning does not simply undermine the sciences; it also hinders the progress of more liberal studies. Algebra is a game characterized by manipulations of equivalences. You start with an algebraically defined statement, say: (x2-y2)2+(2xy)2. The goal of algebra is to somehow create and/or maneuver equivalence relations to get to a new algebraic state; in this case: (x2+y2)2.
This sort of action, seemingly esoteric, is the exact motion practiced by analytic philosophers, the metaphysicians who develop the rules of language and logic. This explains why logic is usually taught within a mathematics class and not a language or English class.
Formal logic is unavoidably just as obscure as algebra because it involves exactly the same reasoning mechanics. But the importance of such a skill cannot be understated within our democratic capitalism. For example: “Mitt Romney paid no taxes for the last 10 years,” does not follow from, “Mitt Romney will not release his tax returns”; or similarly, “Obama was not born in the United States,” does not follow from, “Obama will not release his long form birth certificate.”
As seemingly obvious as this example is, some people are persuaded by this sophistry that can easily be debunked with formal logic, which involves the same reasoning methods as algebra.
Fifty years ago, education in the United States was among the best in the world. Now the United States ranks 32nd in mathematical proficiency and 17th in reading proficiency. Math literacy is a problem in the United States. The country cannot continue to compete internationally if it persistently undercuts the rigor, richness, and fullness of K-12 education. The United States must not remove algebra, a foundational area of mathematics that has historically justified its position of importance, from its students’ curriculum.
Reach contributing writer Sohrab Andaz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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