[Updated August 1 with link to Daniel Willingham’s excellent piece.] Algebra is hard, so why bother teaching it? That’s the “point” made by Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York in the Sunday, July 29 New York Times. The sheer stupidity of this column is breathtaking. I use algebra every single day. I know many people who aren’t very good at algebra. They usually spend more than is necessary because they can’t do simple calculations and comparison pricing.
Can’t do algebra? Congratulations. You’ve just given up any career in engineering, science, math (surprise), computer science, some social sciences (including economics), finance, and … wait for it … political science. I wonder exactly what sort of “political scientist” Prof. Hacker is. So I went looking. He is listed as teaching one course: American Politics and Government (PSCI 100). Aha. He’s not really a political scientist. He’s a politics professor. (Brandeis University is one of the few to honestly call that department the Department of Politics.) More about Prof. Hacker and Queens College shortly.
The blogosphere is all over this story. The best (and most vicious) is from Memento Mori. Here’s a sample:
“Ultimately, I think Hacker’s own innumeracy is preventing him from making a clear argument. All his praise of numerical skills doesn’t obscure the fact that he doesn’t seem to understand exactly what those skills are, much less how they are acquired.
One final shocker from Hacker’s piece, a full paragraph that I quote unaltered:
It’s true that students in Finland, South Korea and Canada score better on mathematics tests. But it’s their perseverance, not their classroom algebra, that fits them for demanding jobs.
My first reaction to this is “What the HELL?!?!?” That’s a logic test right there, in two sentences. Unpacking it, however, should be A) another show, and B) grounds for Hacker’s de-emeritification.”
Others slamming Prof. Hacker include patheos.com, Rob Knop at Galactic Interactions, and Andy Soffer’s blog. If you’re looking for something a little more in-your-face, try Maddox at The Best Page in the Universe. Daniel Willingham has put together a nice analysis, complete with footnotes and citations.
Back to Prof. Hacker. One good reason for learning algebra and other math is so you can put together a web page that doesn’t break when Safari tries to render it. Below is a (rather large, sorry) screen capture of the Queens College page. Enough said.
The simple fact is that a college or university education is not job training. In recent decades, it’s become conflated with job training, at least in North America, and this is too bad. A liberal arts education is all about expanding your mind, all about being able to think. It’s not about gaining skills that you are then going to use in a job. Too many of us professors tend to not have any clue what somebody is supposed to do to earn a living after a liberal arts education other than go to graduate school (so that your liberal arts education is “training” for what you do next). That’s because that was our own life trajectory, and it’s what we know. Liberal arts education is to make people into good citizens, not into good workers. They are to acquaint you with the intellectual achievements of humankind. That is why we read the Iliad, why we watch a performance of Hamlet, why we learn about the history of ancient Greece, and, yes, why we study algebra. Because we want people to be educated so that they understand the intellectual achievements that have made our society what it is today, and that will drive our society in the future. We’re training people to be members of civilization, not employees.