It all started with a young woman who dropped out of school. Supposedly she left because she failed algebra six times and was frustrated. This could be seen as evidence that our math education system is broken and never mind the fact that she was absent for two thirds of the classes during the sixth semester.
Well, we all know that the way we teach math in our schools leaves much to be desired. Even people like me who had an extremely successful experience agree on that. We can argue about why this is and what needs to be done and whether things are getting better all day long. As an aside, I think the main problem is elementary school teachers. If you have ever taught a "math for primary educators" class, you know that the people going to teach your first graders are, by and large, both unproficient in and hostile to mathematics. Nothing like your teacher hating math and being no good at it to inculate a love of the subject in students. Instituting math education by math specialists with degrees in math at all levels (and also paying them more) would probably go a great distance in improving math education in this country.
Richard Cohen, a Washington Post editorial writer, picked up on the story of this poor truant girl and framed the issue in a different way, claiming that mathematics is useless and should not be a requirement for a high school degree:
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. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.
Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.
Wow. There are so many downright stupid things written here that I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps I was learning the wrong things when I was wasting my time learning how to actually write proofs, in the mathematical sense, but Cohen's friend Shelly is just an anecdote. Not only is it not a "proof" of anything, but it is not even compelling evidence in support of his assertion. Learning mathematics, of which algebra is one part, does impart analytical skills. A different sort of analytical skills than learning to write, but valuable ones nonetheless. Evidence of this, for instance, is that of all undergraduate majors, mathematics majors score the highest on average on the law school proficiency examinations. Of course, law schools also require a writing sample, but clearly they value both types of reasoning ability and even probably see them as correlated.
But learning mathematics also helps you get by in this world in tangible ways. Knowing mathematics, even at the level of high school algebra, allows you to figure out your taxes (without using the tables, even), compute a tip, evaluate a credit card or loan offer, compute the tax break you would get from a home loan, and figure out how much you should be saving for retirement, just off the top of my head. Having a feel for mathematics allow you to evaluate risk, which is something we all need to be able to do and something that a lot of people seem to be terrible at. Understanding mathematics at a higher level is a prerequisite for programming a computer, working with money in any meaningful way, becoming a scientist, or practicing medicine. All enterprises that Cohen clearly values less than writing op-ed pieces.
Well, whatever. This wouldn't bother me so much if it weren't such a prevelant sentiment among people who otherwise claim to be educated. Would they be so proud of admitting that they didn't know how to read? Why are innumerate people so proud of their ignorance?
As always on these subjects, PZ Myers makes much the same points more eloquently than I do.