Dump Algebra

Being a good teacher, I like to think, requires a curious and freethinking mind. A supporting example is Andrew Hacker, described by a former Cornell colleague as “the most gifted classroom lecturer in my entire experience of 50 years of teaching.” His book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Claudia Dreifusconvinced me that tenure is harmful. His latest broadside, “Is Algebra Necessary?”, in last Sunday’s New York Times, is as provocative.

He argues that we should stop requiring algebra in schools. Despite the vitriol in several hundred comments (“We read them so you don’t have to.”), he is right.

Support for Hacker’s view comes from the observations of engineer and senior executive Robert Pearson (published in his article “Why don’t most engineers use undergraduate mathematics in their professional work?”, UME Trends, October 1991). Based on his “fifty-four years of experience as a design engineer, as an engineering manager, as a member of management assigned to help alleviate engineer-shop design and manufacturing problems, as a product cost and reliability analyst, as a corporate executive, and as an undergraduate mathematics instructor,” he asks, “Why do 50 percent (probably closer to 70%) of engineering and science practitioners seldom, if ever, use mathematics above the elementary algebra/trigonometry level in their practice?” If algebra is the limit for most engineering and science professionals, why does a typical citizen need algebra?

As Hacker says, much more useful than algebra is quantitative literacy: being able to estimate, judge the reasonableness of numbers, and thereby detect bullshit. Our world offers plenty of practice.

My only disagreement with Hacker is small: whether, as he says, young people should learn to “do long division, whether they want to or not.” I teach mathematics and have written a mathematics textbook, but long division I haven’t used for at least three decades.


I have an idea: Mahajan & Hacker should have an extended debate about whether to dump long division or algebra. Hopefully they can keep it going for years, their discussions filled with brilliant anecdotes, illuminating personal observations, erudite references, and perhaps even leavened with an occasional bit of humor.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can quietly insist that our children learn both long division and algebra, and have them unfortunately miss the educational improvements wrought by the wise men.

Between the efforts of the creationists and the clever fellows, it's a wonder that there are still a few who manage to learn something in school.


As a programmer, I never need to use more than a personal computer. Therefore the average person doesn't need a personal computer.


Yeah, down with Algebra! And while we are at it, what's up with English literature? I can't tell you the last time I used my knowledge of Hamlet on the job. And who needs chemistry besides chemists? Also scratch biology, never have used that one in "real life." I don't speak any foreign language on the job, or really ever, so those four years of Spanish were a giant waste (don't even get me started on the Latin and Greek I learned in college). Heck, the only high school class that taught a subject that I use every day is PE, since I go jogging regularly.


A catchy title there to get people to react! But isn't the problem being oversimplified here? Structured education is great except the rigors of it often take the focus away from training students to solve open-ended problems.
Firstly it's unfair to quote someone who is largely a "manager" on what "engineers" use.
Secondly, it's algebra we are talking about here. Not topology or real analysis!
Lastly, on the disconnected topic of tenure, I wanted to point out there do exist a great many prestigious research institutions in the US _without_ the concept of tenure. I wonder if the writer has actually experienced the hierarchy and political delirium rampant in these places.

Maneki Nekko

I took every math class available in high school, and I believe what I learned in algebra and geometry was sometimes helpful later in life. Not so trigonometry and calculus; studying those was a complete waste of time for me. If I ruled the world I would replace high school trig and calculus with courses in probability and statistics, much more useful branches of math, which would help people understand, among other things, the kinds of arguments made by economists.

Daniel Parry

Algebra itself is not necessary but its use to explain necessary topics is necessary. This is an economics blog so let me ask "how do you explain supply and demand without drawing a supply curve and a demand curve?" Drawing these curves uses algebra.

Another important topic is statistics. Statistics requires (at least) Algebra 1 to be understood at its basic level. And statistics is increasingly important to the lay man these days! The terms "statistically significant" and "sigma" or "standard deviation" are finding themselves into Time Magazine articles, and news programs. Anyone remember five sigma confidence of Bose Higgs particle? How bout six sigma? Or perhaps "The negative attacks on Mitt Romney show no statistically significant impact on his poll numbers" (Time magazine article that came out this week). I can keep going...

Educated people who think this way I believe commit a fallacy wherein they forget exactly how they learned the stuff they find "useful" instantaneously without the use of basic subjects like Algebra as a helper. The reality of it is that algebra is so basic that you kind of forget that your even using it sometimes.



Hacker claims that American kids can't learn algebra. However many countries outside the US have much higher pass-rates in algebra. While it's possible that there is something specialk about the students that prevents them from learning algebra, it seems more likely to me that there is something wrong with the education system.


Doesn't basic algebra teach you how to set up equations to find what you are looking for? If I'm trying to figure out, say, a tip, I know my tip is x. I'm shooting for 15%. So I now have [total] x [15/100] = x, or .15[total]=x. Works for reducing recipes too. Or really, any kind of math where you have an unknown and a known or two.

To me, that was the most valuable thing I got from algebra...the ability to put the unknown on one side of the equation and all the knowns on the other side to reach an answer.


the belief that "algebra causes more students to drop out, therefore we shouldn't teach algebra anymore" is at best specious reasoning, and at worst patently absurd. As the saying goes, you don't fight obesity by loosening your belt.

Scott Handelman

I've always thought that high school existed to open doors for students that led to whatever future they desired. What 9th grader would we trust completely to know exactly what they need to learn to do what they will eventually do as an adult? If you give a 9th grader the option to not take any further math than middle-school math, you've just shut a bunch of doors for them that it will be hard to reopen.

There are *lots* of good reasons to take algebra, as many people have already stated. "I never used algebra in my life!" is a horrible excuse not to teach it. The only way to *ensure* that you'll never use something is to never learn it in the first place.


Algebra, just as all of college, is not just for knowledge base, if all college is, is another four to eight years of memorization. We could just compress that into high school and leave college for what it's really for...teaching you how to think, rationally, that is what algebra is for, not usage in the mathematical sense but the practical logical sense. Something people have been missing, but are now using that education for... a new vehicle, everybody thinks that you only spend what the car is worth, but think about what the monthly cost of a new(payment) vs repairing your old car ($3600 annually average break even). Dumping algebra would be a bad choice in our educational system, our engineers, though not using algebra, wouldn't be able to have the thought and mindset to create what they do. We would lose a very large amount of mental capital in our society. Dumping Algebra would add to the constant dumbing down of our society.



Are you sure you don't use long division? Maybe you don't realize it? Like, if you have 5 feet of wall and want to put in some shelves to hold glasses, don't you gauge whether you'd rather have five 12" shelves or six 10" shelves? That's long division...


You may indeed be a math teacher, but you are clearly not an educator. As pointed out earlier the arguments presented are based upon logical fallacies and furthermore would result in the further devaluation of American education.
Instead of removing subjects in which students perform poorly, find a method to teach the concepts better. Sometimes the better method involves suffering on the part of the student (course/grade repetition, etc).

Mike Gallagher

I read the article on the NYT and what startled me the most was that better universities wanted 700 on the math portion of the SAT's. When I was in HS back in ought 9 (actually the 60's ) 800 was the requirement for decent schools, never mind the elite schools . I don't remember working that awfully hard at it . Wonder what the corresponding decline is for the English portion and vocabulary ? I bet it corresponds statistically but I guess only a small portion of HS graduates would understand what that means . If anything is too hard to master then I guess we should abolish it. That is why we are falling behind every year . School isn't suppose to be easy .


So Robert's education model could be summarized as: If engineers do not use it on the job, nobody needs to know it?

Algebra and ability to work with mathematical variables comes into play with any job that involves analytical skill such as finance, accounting, statistics, computer programming, sciences, social sciences, and etc.

If anything, basic algebra and stats should be at the core of any higher education