What Is Math For? Well, What Is Public Education For?
For a quick diversion from the immediately relevant tasks of quantifying legislator votes and charting the ebbs and flows of Rhode Island civilization, I can’t resist commenting on Andrew Hacker’s New York Times question, “Is Algebra Necessary?“:
My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.
There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)
My experience was somewhat like that of Glenn Reynolds: I was good at math but didn’t become a fan until I began putting it into practice. That practice rolled out in many different phases: Music, for one, is built on mathematical concepts; analyzing public policy as a hobby in my mid-20s lent a new relevance to calculations and proofs; but the visceral love of math only came when all of my preferred career paths came to a dead end of unemployment.
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