Is Algebra (or Grammar or Science or . . . ) Necessary?

Dear Reader,

Have you seen any of the many articles coming out lately on algebra and whether our kids really need to learn it? It started with a New York Times op-ed by Andrew Hacker saying that it was not necessary for most of to learn higher math (algebra and beyond). Of course this set off a storm of counter-articles and counter-counter-articles.

Hacker’s basic argument is two-fold: 1) algebra is too hard and leads otherwise decent students to drop out or underachieve and 2) most of us don’t need those kinds of math skills. The main counter argument (see this Washington Post article by Daniel Willingham) seems to be that even if the specific skills aren’t used, higher math is still valuable for how they teach people to reason and think. Willingham contends that “the mathematics learned in school, even if seldom applied directly, makes students better able to learn new quantitative skills.” He also implies that the problem is not unique to math:

“The difficulty students have in applying math to everyday problems they encounter is not particular to math. Transfer is hard. New learning tends to cling to the examples used to explain the concept. That’s as true of literary forms, scientific method, and techniques of historical analysis as it is of mathematical formulas.”

Then come the counter-counter-articles, like this one by Roger Schank. The essence of his argument is that the thinking involved in higher math just does not carry over into other areas of life. As the daughter and sister of mathematicians, I can fully relate to his observation that their lives do not demonstrate higher levels of reasoning than other peoples:

“Are mathematicians the best thinkers you know? I know plenty of them who can’t
handle their own lives very well.”

You’d be amazed by the soap-opera-esque scandals that go on in your local university math department.

Finally, we have this post, also by Roger Schank, arguing that almost all of what out students learn in high school is a waste of time.  Here perhaps there is some agreement with Willingham in that the problem is not math alone but rather it is an issue of whether any school learning is able to carry over into “real life.”

So what is the verdict? Is this all a waste of time? And, as homeschoolers, are there ways we can teach our kids that are not a waste of time?

Personally, I have used basic algebra (0ne or two variable equations, no exponents involved) when altering knitting patterns. But I don’t really see where my high school chemistry has benefited me at all. Schank debunks any foreign langauge learning done in schools though I did muddle through with my high school Spanish when I needed to get my husband medications in a pharmacy in Chile. So I guess from my own personal experience, I would say a lot of my high school time was a giant waste, but not all. Some bits here and there have been useful. Though my overall feeling is that I wish I had gotten a lot more education out of my high school. If my history studies were not beneficial, for instance, it is because they were so lacking. I do think it is valuable to know history but one has to know enough of it to see the patterns and the big flow of events. My education was too piecemeal to do any good.

Then to, especially when I think of educating my own children, I think it comes down to a matter of what one’s goals are also. If our goals are those of the public schools, to produce people who are able to go to college and/or get jobs, then a lot of what we do probably is wasted effort. It does not immediately advance the goal. But if our goals are broader, if we care more about who the student is, if we are trying to develop well-rounded, whole people, then a broader, more complete education is in order.

Both Willingham and Schank say that none of our school knowledge carries over well into the rest of life (the one thing they agree upon perhaps). But I think this is why Charlotte Mason (you didn’t think we’d get through a post without me bringing her up, did you?) approaches things differently. She sees the goal of education as allowing the child to form relations with the largest possible number of areas. “Education is the science of relations” is her motto, and her goal is to set students’ feet in a large room, to open up the world to them through these relations. If the problem is being able to apply knowledge from one context to another, then Charlotte begins work on this early on by encouraging children to make connections between diverse things.

So perhaps what we need is not to throw away all of high school but to change show we teach. We have become too utilitarian, and it is limiting us. We need to rethink our goals and to expand our vision.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Patti on October 12, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Dear Nebby: As usual you do a great job of communicating issues and giving us something to think about. Thanks! Through the 25+ years I have home schooled I have tried to ask myself why I teach a particular thing and how is the best way to do it – to think outside the educational box. Like you, my search has led me to a Charlotte Mason education. My students often lament that they don’t need algebra, “What will I ever use this for anyway?” But we still have our high school students learn algebra. I think it is good for their brains to be challenged and built up and for their thinking to be developed in as many areas as possible. Also, I don’t know what their future will hold and what they will need – who would have thought that you would need Spanish, but it turned out to be useful. Choosing to do a “hard” thing like algebra brings a feeling of accomplishment and confidence, it makes pathways in the brain for other challenging things. It may not be necessary, but I still think it is a worthwhile pursuit. Thanks for sharing. Patti


  2. Reblogged this on homeschoolingmiddleeast and commented:
    More thoughts about Maths (and Grammar and Science) from Nebby – please click on her links to other articles, they are very interesting 🙂


  3. […] the result is that other subjects like the humanities are neglected (see this post and this one and this one). In conversations with homeschoolers, the relevant topic is usually “why do I have to teach […]


  4. […] Charlotte is arguing, as she often does, against certain ideas prevalent in her day. The big one here seems to be that studying math with train certain faculties in the child’s mind, will cause them to exist even. Charlotte, believing as she does in the personhood of each child, rejects the idea that we produce any such faculties in our students. She believes that the powers of logic and reasoning which they need are already in them. Nor does she seem to believe that these powers need to be trained particularly by us. She questions also whether the logical training of mathematics actually carries over to any other area of life (an idea which has also been floated in our own day). […]


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