Lots of people are razzng Richard Cohen today for his column “What Is the Value of Algebra?” Background: Los Angeles high school students must pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry in order to graduate, and this requirement is causing inordinate numbers of students to drop out in their senior years. Cohen points to one student who failed algebra six times in six semesters, and who finally abandoned her books and disappeared from the school. He writes,
I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time — the only proof I’ve ever seen of divine intervention — somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again. I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry while I busied myself learning how to type. In due course, this came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever took.
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.
Now, I detected some tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating humor in Cohen’s article, but some of my favorite bloggers were quite upset by it. PZ Myers of Pharyngula writes,
Because Richard Cohen is ignorant of elementary mathematics, he can smugly tell a young lady to throw away any chance being a scientist, a technician, a teacher, an accountant; any possibility of contributing to science and technology, of even being able to grasp what she’s doing beyond pushing buttons. It’s Richard Cohen condescendingly telling someone, “You’re as stupid as I am; give up.” And everything he said is completely wrong.
I’m not being cheeky. I’m genuinely wondering. Because he seems to have struggled so mightily with basic math that it suggests a possible undiagnosed learning disability, which isn’t a funny thing. It also sounds like the girl in his linked column to whom he’s directing the bad advice that math doesn’t matter—a girl who failed “algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it” and subsequently dropping out of school—may well have an undiagnosed learning disability, too. And that makes his column not just ridiculous or ill-advised, but tragic.
The ever-gentlemanly Kevin Drum is a little kinder:
Cohen’s serious point isn’t really whether algebra is useful or not, it’s whether it should be required to graduate from high school. That is, if you find yourself completely unable to fathom algebra, should you be condemned to spend the rest of your life as a high school dropout? I don’t really have an opinion about this, but it’s a serious question.
On the other hand, Cohen says he can’t do percentages either, and if that’s the case then maybe he should go back to high school.
Sorry, I’m with Richard. Yes, being math-impaired is a learning disability, and I have it. I recognized this years ago, and through all these years I have managed to work around it quite nicely, especially with the help of calculators and Microsoft Excel. I can even calculate percentages with Excel (something I really did have to do in my professional life), although not with a calculator. I’m not sure why that’s true, but it is. Before Excel, I had to ask people to do percentages for me.
I don’t believe I was born math-impaired. I blame the way math was taught in elementary school back in my day. We cave children would sit scratching page after page of the same rote math problem on our stone tablets, and there … is … nothing … more … mind … numbingly … boring than that. Working the problems was easy, but I would have rather watched paint dry than do it. By the time I was in third grade I was falling behind, and by fifth grade or so I had full-blown math phobia, and from then on I was hopeless.
On my PSATs I was in the 90-something percentiles in everything but math; in math I came in at 3rd percentile. Yes, that’s third, not thirty. I am not making this up. (As I remember I left most of the test blank because I was utterly baffled by it, but one of the few questions I did answer I actually got right. This must have saved me from first percentile.) In college I chose to major in journalism mostly because there wasn’t a math requirement.
I do consider it a disability, but if you’ve got to have a disability it’s a relatively benign one to have. I think that was Cohen’s point. He’s not opposed to math education. Nor am I; I am humbled and grateful that so many people can do math and are scientists and doctors and accountants and whatever. Civilization isn’t possible without them. But if you don’t have legs you’re not going to be a dancer. If you don’t have eyes you’re not going to be a graphic artist. I was never going to be a scientist. That’s how life is. I accept it.
Back to Kevin’s question — “if you find yourself completely unable to fathom algebra, should you be condemned to spend the rest of your life as a high school dropout?” My answer is emphatically no. But the real issue, IMO, is math education, and whether math is still being mis-taught. The Los Angeles Times story by Duke Helfand to which Cohen refers says that hundreds of Los Angeles high school students are dropping out without diplomas because of the algebra requirement. “The school district could have seen this coming if officials had looked at the huge numbers of high school students failing basic math,” writes Helfand. Teachers complain that they spend much of the class time reviewing math concepts students should have mastered in fourth grade. And 44 percent of Los Angeles high school students flunk algebra the first time they take it.
It is absolutely pointless to try to teach algebra to teenagers if they’ve had math phobias festering, untreated, since grade school. Fuhgeddaboutit. But in all these years have educators actually come to terms with math phobias, how they form, and how to treat them before it’s too late? Not that I’ve seen.
So instead of getting irritated with algebra invalids like Richard, Gabriela and me, go yell at educators. Dyscalculiaics are made, not born. Usually.