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Defending Algebra

    From: David Ziffer
    To: Education Week
    Date: Wed, 25 Oct 2000 21:46:52 -0500

    Dear Education Week:

    Some people never learn. Like me for example. Every couple of months I keep thinking that I've just read the stupidest imaginable article in the education press. Having read it, I blithely proceed with my life, believing that I could never encounter anything as outrageous and imbecilic as what I've just suffered through. But this week Education Week has proven me wrong again. Gerald Bracey's column, "The Malevolent Tyranny of Algebra" has once again topped everything I've ever seen before.

    Mr. Bracey contends that algebra is an essentially useless skill, malevolently imposed upon our students for the purpose of sorting out which children will attend college. But wait a minute, don't all of us in the scientific and mathematical communities emphatically claim that algebra is the very foundation of the work that we do every single day? Not so, according to Mr. Bracey. Apparently he thinks that people can build bridges, produce electricity, design cars, and fly airplanes without any use of algebra at all. And what about the scientific professionals' opinions that algebra is absolutely essential? "Nonsense. Balderdash," Bracey says, offering no further support or explanation.

    I can agree with Mr. Bracey on one thing, though, when he says that the average American places little value on algebra in his or her daily life. You can't place much value on something you don't have, thanks in great part to the teachers and guidance counselors who didn't bother to acquaint you with it. That's why the average American could never figure out whether the local bank is ripping him off on his monthly mortgage payment. Lack of familiarity with the quadratic equation is the reason why my wife couldn't figure out the solution to a simple quilting problem she encountered a few months back. And the existence of commentators like Mr. Bracey certainly helps me grasp why many of the average Americans commenting on the recent presidential debates complained that they couldn't understand all the numeric talk (both Gore and Bush tossed out a few trivial percentages).

    This year the computer industry alone (just one branch of the sciences) will suffer a half-a-million-worker shortfall, due entirely to the fact that American colleges can't graduate anywhere near enough qualified candidates. Having been in the field professionally for 23 years now, I must say that even those people entering the field don't seem to know very much. And when I go to hire help, I've stopped looking for American citizens altogether - the last set of people I hired were all from India. No wonder Silicon Valley keeps lobbying Congress to raise the immigration limits.

    If Mr. Bracey were a lone wolf, I perhaps wouldn't be so concerned. But he seems to be just one of the true motivators in the education field, driving everyone down towards lower standards and expectations by convincing them that all this rigor and study just isn't necessary. A few years ago, the ever-popular Willard Daggett visited my local schools, preaching that algebra should be deemphasized (apparently this is a regular staple of his never-ending road show). The U.S. Department of Education recently rated 10 of the world's most ridiculous math curricula as "exemplary", much to the dismay of 200 professional mathematicians who wrote in to object. And of course everybody knows by now that our high school seniors are dead last in math among the industrialized nations of the world, and almost last even among third-world countries that spend a tiny fraction of what we do on education.

    It has been many years since I read the report, "A Nation at Risk", which contains the now-famous sentence, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." When I first read these words I thought of them as nothing more than hyperbole designed to evoke a reaction in the reader. But the more I see of the education profession, the more I begin to believe that we are under some sort of attack. If there is a "malevolent tyranny" in America, it has ironically taken the form of the benevolent educator who assures us that we're all already working too hard. In my youth I couldn't understand how a great nation could ever fall, but now I understand perfectly.

    Dave Ziffer
    Batavia, IL


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