Recently the Washington Post published an article that carried interesting mathematical news.
I know, you didn’t think there could BE such a thing, so boring is mathematics.
But there’s news, all right: Many states are now requiring high-school students, no matter how mystifying they find numbers and formulas, to take not only basic math but also an advanced course, Algebra II.
The Post article began by stating the crux of the matter as seen by mathematical dodos like me:
With its intricate mysteries of quadratics, logarithms and imaginary numbers, Algebra II often provokes a lament from high-schoolers.
“What exactly does this have to do with real life?”
From the moment I walked out of my final exam in Algebra ONE in high school, I can’t remember using a mathematical formula. Not to shop. Not to cross a busy street. Not to write. Not to get out of a jam. Not for anything that I can think of.
Now, as a reasonably organized Virgo, I appreciate math’s emphasis on logic and accuracy. But does anyone need an ADVANCED course to drum this into his head?
In college, I had a fraternity brother, a pre-engineering student, who carried his slide rule just for decoration. He could do equations in his head. I thought he was the second coming of Pythagoras. Not that I remember a lot about Pythagoras, other than he had some famous theorem related to triangles.
He — my friend, not Pythagoras — in turn, thought I was Ernest Hemingway, just because I could align verbs with nouns in a string of words.
My buddy had shot way past Algebra II into “trig” and beyond – and I shiver to think what THOSE courses must have been like.
Good for him. By now, I’m sure, he’s building better mousetraps or computers or mountainside viaducts, or developing the gear that sends our astronauts into space.
I, on the other hand, write a humble blog and other essays about America. No doubt he’d say my job is harder.
Which brings me back to the question. If I’ve done OK for half a century without Algebra II, why should mathematically clueless high-school students be REQUIRED to take it?
So I asked my editor, Rob “Archimedes” Sivak, who supervises VOA’s science, health, and agriculture reporters — and me. He snorted at the very idea that one would dismiss the value of taking advanced math:
“As hard and vexing and confounding as math often is (to those of us with the basic brain wiring kit), it is beautiful, fundamental, profound,” he wrote me.
“Beautiful”! “Profound”! Mathematics?? Bear with him:
And while we can’t all visualize the space-time continuum of general relativity in our HEADS the way Einstein is said to have done, we can certainly prod ourselves to keep at the hard work of trigonometry and geometry and calculus, because it’s a noble venture to try to understand the way the world is structured. Besides, the effort also exercises the brain and, like the crossword-puzzle-a-day prescription as a bulwark against Alzheimer’s disease, solving even simple math problems keeps those neurons firing!
I suspect that Alzheimer’s Disease reference was a shot aimed directly at me. Now, where was I?
I look back at my other high-school courses and can see at least SOME relevance to my life as it unfolded:
American history: I incorporate it into almost everything I write.
American Lit: Not so much, but occasionally a pithy F. Scott Fitzgerald quote spices up a piece.
Geology: I’ve been to places such as Arches National Park in Utah where its relevance looms in front of you in vivid red.
Shop class: I haven’t cut off a finger with my circular saw yet.
Home Economics: Yes, boys as well as girls were required to take this at Lakewood High School. Thanks to it, I still make a mean egg salad.
Geometry: Carol says I have a good “spatial” sense when she asks me to move furniture around. I still get my isosceles mixed up with my equilateral, however.
Typing: I’ll have you know I was the fastest in the class, despite my stubby fingers. That is, until I took sick for three weeks and missed the numbers part. Now I type like the wind without looking at the keyboard until I need an 8 or a %. Then I screech to halt and hunt the right key for a slow and dainty finger-peck.
**Future blog alert!!! How DID they come up with the alignment of the letters and numbers and punctuation marks on the typewriter — now computer — keyboard?**
Drama: Hey, I played old man Clarence Day in “Life with Father” and the Major General in the “Pirates of Penzance.” Check out the podcast of this post, and I’ll break into “I am the very model of a modern major-general.”
Phys. Ed.: OK, I don’t rope-climb any more, and I never could do chin-ups with my stick-figure arms. But we own an imposing-looking treadmill. It’s an ornament, but I recognize how valuable it could be.
Which brings us back to the alleged value of advanced mathematics courses at a tender age.
I think Rob is right to say that it’s a “noble venture” to try to understand the way the world is structured. And nobler still to improve that structure.
But that’s work for others, not me, and more power to them.
And I can appreciate the value of requiring all teenagers — even creative story writers and dreamy poets — to take BEGINNING algebra for the logic practice.
But spare them Algebra II, trig, and such.
As New Yorker magazine writer Calvin Trillin put it, “I never did well in math. I could never seem to persuade the teacher that I hadn’t meant my answers literally.”
If you think about it, the debate over the merits of requiring coursework that may not suit all students’ native abilities can be expanded to higher education.
The other day, I heard a sports-talk radio host opine that colleges’ premier “student-athletes” — many of whom are as studious as I am muscular — should be able to blow off academic classes, since everybody knows big state colleges are simply “football factories” whose jocks bring in millions of dollars to the school through their performance on the field. The players are in college solely because it’s their ticket to lucrative professional careers.
And their coaches keep their high-paying jobs, the sportscaster asserted, by winning games and turning out star players who serve as useful success stories that impress the next recruiting class of stud athletes. The coaches are no different from the engineering faculty, who build the school’s reputation and endowments — and their own tenured security — by turning out world-class engineers.
In short, chirped this talkmaster, not just the athletic department but also colleges as a whole have become glorified trade schools with fancier trappings.
I’m not sure how the philosophy faculty would feel about this, since they’re not exactly running a philosopher job mill.
They and others would surely call the sportscaster’s reasoning absurd and argue that a broad, liberal-arts grounding builds intellectual rigor and curiosity in every student.
Come to think of it, this sounds a lot like the argument of those who are now requiring Algebra II in high school, that it teaches life skills beyond formula coefficients and the like.
As a bumper sticker that I saw recently put it:
“Math is radical!”
I think that’s a pun. Had I taken Algebra II, I guess I’d know.
Tell me what you think about requiring advanced algebra in school.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Coefficient. In mathematics, this is the number before a variable. In the formula 25x + 5y = 100, for instance, 25 and 5 are both coefficients. Or so my math friends tell me.
Dodo. A clumsy, flightless — and thus now-extinct, bird. Its inability to cope in a hostile world of predators has become a metaphor for human ineffectiveness and bungling as well.
Pithy. Concise and forceful. Pith is the substance beneath the surface of a plant, such as the “white part” of an orange under its skin, so “pithy” relates to getting to the heart of a matter. And a “pith helmet” — the kind that every respectable British explorer wore in the jungle in old movies — is made from a lightweight, corky pith from certain trees.
Trappings. Ornamental clothing or furnishings. The word is often used to describe handsome or fashionable adornments, as in the “trappings of success.”
Trig. Short for trigonometry, which, I’m told — God knows I had to look this up — has to do with computing the length of the sides of triangles by knowing the triangle’s angles and measuring the length of one side. (Math brains: help me out here!)