Willie Soon has reminded me about an unusually dumb article by one of these low-brow hackers named Andrew Hacker:
Is Algebra Necessary? [Hacker answers "No."]I've previously noticed comments about this unusually weak article at Clifford Johnson's blog which also recommends you to read a criticism of the NYT article at Good Math Bad Math.
Relatively to typical U.S. rightwingers, I have enough respect for the Grey Lady, especially when it comes to their writing about complicated enough science which they cover much more sensibly and cleverly than other sources, especially other left-wing sources. But this article is just horrible. Why?
Hacker says that algebra is unnecessary and should be abolished because kids are getting bad grades, they suffer, and some of them drop out of schools because of algebra. I believe that if you read the previous sentence, you may save your time and skip reading the rant in the Grey Lady because it contains no other ideas, just vacuous meaningless babbling and unsubstantiated anti-mathematical screams.
These observations that the math class is tough are surely correct, statistically speaking. The average grade in algebra is worse than the average grade in cheaper subjects. Mathematical subjects are much more likely to be the reason why young people drop out of schools, and so on and so on.
The deterioration of the society is fast. A year ago, such stupid opinions would be a domain of fictitious beauty contestants in satirical videos. In 2012, however, they're what hackers seriously advocate in America's most prestigious newspapers.
However, what is wrong is Hacker's conclusion (and the conclusion of most of the Miss USA contestants in the famous funny video above) that these observations imply that algebra shouldn't be taught. In fact, they imply exactly the opposite.
There are many independent reasons why mathematics must be taught. I am convinced that no person whose IQ is closer to average people in 2012 than to average people in the Idiocracy Movie doubts that mathematical subjects are essential for people to independently exist, and especially lead others, in a civilized world – especially in all those human activities where people make living differently than by getting money from others "for nothing tangible". Most of the "vital parts" of the human activity that the civilization couldn't survive without crucially depend on mathematics; the other human activities are pretty much about the redistribution and "funny flows" of the wealth created by the activities that do depend on maths.
Algebra is needed to calculate which mortgage is better for you, it is a cornerstone of economics as well as physics and some other natural and technical sciences and engineering, and it is crucial for trillions of other things I don't want to list here. Some other people have discussed those self-evident things.
But I want to focus on Hacker's arguments that remind me of arguments of a spoiled and lazy teenager whose buttocks should be severely spanked. (I would recommend this treatment even if Mr Hacker weren't a teenager anymore; however, his emeritus status may earn him an exception, after all.)
He says that in other subjects, everyone gets a good grade, and that's why schools should emphasize those subjects. But this is complete rubbish – a proof that Mr Hacker has made an algebraic sign error in his reasoning. If all people are getting good grades in a subject, it shows that these students and schools are really wasting their time (or times if the time isn't the only one). Why? Well, it really means that schools are spending more time with that than what is needed for most people to get it.
On the other hand, if only some people manage to reach a certain level of algebraic skills, it shows that the teaching process makes a difference. Needless to say, the right way to level the field – and make algebra more analogous to cheaper subjects when it comes to the grades – is to increase the time dedicated to algebra so that even the slower students increase their chance to get from an F or a D to a B.
However, I am afraid that Mr Hacker won't be able to understand my argument – concluding that bad-grade subjects should be dedicated more time, not less time, and easy good-grade subjects could be shrunk – based on the law of diminishing returns if he hasn't even understood why algebra is important.
The same comments apply to the issue of dropouts and all other "arguments" by Mr Hacker. The fact that mathematical subjects are the reason why some people are dropouts while other people aren't is what makes mathematical subjects important at school, what inserts meritocracy rather than nepotism and emotions to the grading process and to many other phenomena in the real world.
The deficient and utterly illogical character of Mr Hacker's argumentation only helps to emphasize how completely inadequate his knowledge and thinking is. People who want to preserve the civilization and avoid the future according to the Idiocracy Movie are facing a double challenge: they must improve the teaching of mathematical subjects so that the deterioration helped by unchecked populism is stopped; and they must protect the society against the influence of breathtaking dimwits such as Mr Hacker himself who were unfortunately taught how to write (e.g. for The New York Times) but they have never learned how to think and who can no longer be efficiently treated in the way that spoiled lazy kids should be treated.
See also Czech conservative president Václav Klaus regrets declining prestige of maths and try to figure out whether the leftwingers or conservatives are more anti-science.