Phi Beta Cons

Cut Algebra? Are You Serious?

In the New York Times, Professor Andrew Hacker argues for rethinking high-school curricula. Among his proposals, Hacker suggests a greater focus on practical math and on the history of math instead of a heavy focus on complex algebra and calculus.

I can understand this argument; I see college seniors who, after passing a few stats classes, cannot apply what they learned because their classes focused more on “sigmas and I’s” then on articulating the meaning of the correlation coefficient they just calculated.

Yet Hacker arrives at his stance through a route that will cause quite a bit of pushback. The bulk of the essay argues for reducing or possibly eliminating the teaching of algebra altogether because (1) it’s hard and many students fail; thus, it stands in the way of these students’ achieving a college degree and (2) it’s hardly used “on-the-job” today.

Ugh.

Why not cut history and literature while we’re at it? How vocational are those subjects? Also, many students get away with subpar writing in non-quantitative classes; if that writing were assessed with more rigor, we would see failing numbers akin to what we see in calculus classes.

Defenders of classical education need to fight back with rational arguments instead of emotion (make no mistake, Hacker’s article will stir up some anger). The current focus on the return-on-investment of education ensures that this will not be the last time you hear this debate. Be prepared.

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