Algebra in NY Times

This weekend, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Andrew Hacker, emeritus professor of political science at Queens College in CUNY (sister college to where I teach). The piece is titled "Is Algebra Necessary?" and seems to make the argument that an algebra requirement should be waived for most students in American high schools and college.

Obviously, on a nearly daily basis, my job deals directly with the pain and death-march scenario of a majority of students coming into our community colleges and being unable to pass the equivalent of a 7th-grade algebra course. I do think that for all of us -- even myself -- proficiency at math is almost always the limiting factor in our careers. At the same time, it's almost uncanny how many old friends I have getting in contact with me to say that they've suddenly found a higher level of math really key to their professional advancement -- including psychologists, photographers, and even artists (mentioned in Hacker's article as a group that should clearly be freed from a math requirement).

Let me riff on that last point for a bit. My girlfriend is a fine artist, with an MFA in sculpting from a school here where we live in New York City. Earlier this year, she was the recipient of a month-long artist residency in Taiwan where she put together an outdoor installation in knitted recycled plastic as part of an exhibit on environmental themes. She has a fairly high proficiency at math (in fact, for about a month she was a math major in college before switching), and this gets used routinely in her career. She has to estimate volumes of complicated shapes she's planning to put together, so as to procure materials (plastic, wire, plaster, etc.) She has to do calculations with money so as to set budgets and write grant proposals. She has to estimate time for projects that might last many months. At some point she generated a calculation for people, time, and material to cover the Eiffel Tower in tiny crocheted plastic leaves (a long-term goal).

And as I know from several friends working as graphic artists (such as from my time in the video game industry) -- almost all of the work today is done on computers anyway, so they need proficiency with numbers, computer science, (x,y) coordinate systems, algorithms, etc. in order to interface with the most basic professional workflows nowadays. On the side, my girlfriend also runs a home business coding HTML and hosting websites for other artists, and last week was learning for the first time to hack in a UNIX command prompt in order to apply software patches. Such is the life of an artist in the 21st century.

This post is sort of a brain-dump in the first 5 minutes after reading Prof. Hacker's opinion piece. One thing I would like to ask is: Having criticized a bunch of other academic disciplines for, in his view, their overly-high math requirements (math departments themselves, medicine, history, etc.), what would his prescription be for his own discipline, political science? What would the bare-minimum level of math proficiency be there -- decimal arithmetic, college algebra, perhaps statistics? (He writes, "I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers.") Is it possible that the requirements set by a discipline may be there for reasons not immediately obvious to an outsider? (As one example: I wouldn't have known that statistical confidence intervals and P-value statements are a core piece of any medical literature until my own mother, a school nurse, asked for help in reading a required article for continuing education credit.)

At first blush, Prof. Hacker's criticisms don't sound entirely coherent, but I could be biased. Personally, I think I'm most worried about changing the essence of what counts as a college education in exchange for the possibly spurious idea that everyone in our society is required to have a B.A. (and yet that may be an unwinnable fight at this point). But one last thought; near the end of his article he writes,

I WANT to end on a positive note. Mathematics, both pure and applied, is integral to our civilization, whether the realm is aesthetic or electronic... Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call “citizen statistics.” This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another.

Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives. It could, for example, teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted — and include discussion about which items should be included and what weights they should be given. 
 Okay -- just for argument's sake, let's say I go to the Wikipedia article on the Consumer Price Index and start reading up on that subject. What do I see there? Math, equations, written in the language of algebra:

So, what do those symbols mean? What is the proper order of applying those operations? (Noting that approximately half of my remedial algebra students end a semester unable to answer a final exam problem to apply the proper order-of-operations in several steps.) Any of these disciplines, and even a simple CPI calculation is a great example, presume that educated readers have the grammar of algebra (I think that's what it's most like, really) available to converse with. The only other option is to mount a crusade to expunge this writing from professional resources -- and in so doing, bring those disciplines to a grindingly slow level of inefficiency and lack of progress.


  1. I was actually going to post a comment on the NYTimes page... but it seems all the comments so far mirror the outrage I feel about the OpEd. You do have to wonder if those articles are just a ploy to get more traffic to their site...

  2. Let me see...

    A "political science" professor writing for the NYT argues that algebra is no longer necessary.

    I agree. Lets just trust the politicians that the numbers will all "work themselves out."

    I had a good laugh from it. Although I think it could have been published in the Onion.

  3. I am of the opinion that at least high school algebra (and geo/trig) should still be considered the minimum level of math for any basic education. I think I would include some statistics too. What I am concerned about is how many students graduate without actually learning that minimum. Can we do a better job of answering students whining 'when will I ever use this' i.e. make it more relevent and interesting? Demand higher standards before graduating them (may mean breaking the lock-step marching of cohorts by age through the system)? Is it parent's or society's fault. Whatever the answer, it isn't further dumbing down of education.