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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.