Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cohen wants to take algebra out of the equation

Math professor Jason Rosenhouse of Evolutionblog is fuming. And rightly so. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently comforted a high school student who flunked algebra six times by saying:
Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that.
Bullshit! How dare this meathead tell students they don't and won't ever need algebra.

And why is Cohen so adamant that kids shouldn't bother going beyond arithmetic?
I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time -- the only proof I've ever seen of divine intervention -- somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again.
Cohen proudly wears his stupidity on his sleeve. And maybe, just maybe, by promoting ignorance he'd feel more secure as the number mathophobes like him grow at an exponential rate.

Mr. Cohen, I don't know what my life would be without algebra. Among other things, how am I suppose to compute for voltages and currents in electronic circuits without it? I fell head over heels in love with algebra the very first semester I was introduced to it. Along with science it's among the best and most important things I learned in school. And unless you missed the Industrial and Information Age, mathematics is power! As Rosenhouse rightly points out: no algebra (and higher maths), no technology. It's as simple as that.

Rosenhouse made my day:
The following fantasy conversation plays in my mind from time to time:

NICE PERSON AT PARTY: What do you do?
ME: I'm a mathematician.
NICE PERSON: Oh, (giggles), I was never any good at math.
ME: That's because you're an idiot.

I never say that of course. No, usually I say something tactful like, “You just never had the right teacher.” But it really is irritating when otherwise intelligent and well-educated people act like you're the weird one for being good at math.

1 comment:

Bronze Dog said...

I believe Chris Rock had a term for those sorts of anti-intellectuals, though it was a bit more race-specific. I think we need to come up with an equally dirty word to describe these people.