Some Comments

Andrew Hacker, in his article “Is Algebra Necessary?” in the Sunday Review of The New York Times (Sunday, July 29), raises a question that seems to have been raised by others but that fails to attract much attention. One might ask if this apparent neglect comes from an attitude that this issue is not important or from fear to tackle an issue that, if fully considered, may bring systematic changes in higher education, where other questions could be asked not only about the necessity of algebra but also about that of other subjects that many students think or are made to believe they must take to be ready for a job.

It seems Mr. Hacker’s main point is that all the energy invested by educational institutions in making several math subjects mandatory is futile if the ultimate goal is to train students for a job that might require more specific quantitative skills totally different from what is taught to them. This view might lead one to ask: where does the belief that everybody should take mathematics come from? While Mr. Hacker makes reference to such belief, he unfortunately does not present in detail the arguments for such view. In the fifteenth paragraph, he offers a hypothetical rebuttal to his argument, but the counterargument seems to give a rather superficial justification for the blind instruction of mathematics in schools. The apparent superficiality of the objection might be that it only covers the usefulness of mathematics. What about the view that math, as an art, should be taught without any goal for a job? In other words, why should math be taught as a tool? In such a case, would it then make any sense to talk about the “necessity” of algebra?

Also, the article seems to suggest there needs to be a clear differentiation between mathematics as an academic activity and quantitative instruction as a job training. While the first does not need any justification for its raison d’être, the second needs to be grounded in the context of some specific job that dictates which topics to cover. This suggested dichotomy would be

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motivated by the existence or absence of any purpose in teaching or leaning mathematics and would dictate how classes need to be named. For instance, while mathematics classes would still have some of their esoteric names, job-related quantitative training courses would use more explicit names such as “Math for ….”.

Another question suggested by the article is whether mathematics is needed at all for a fulfilled academic life. In other words, aren’t there equally challenging ways to mold the mind other than doing mathematics? Are talents dependent only on making mathematics mandatory? The author doesn’t think so. While it seems plausible to say that making a subject mandatory does not guarantee any virtuosity in the subject, I find it rather categorical to aver that it definitely does not develop young talents. For some people, they happen to excel in a subject that once was mandatory and that they loathed. Ultimately, it seems the main question of this article, where “algebra” could be replaced by “mathematics,” is far from having a definite answer, and debates about it are far from being dispassionate.

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