Who needs algebra?

One of the tough questions I immediately ran across when I came to Beloit College in Wisconsin, was the long-standing question of what “algebra is good for”? But it started a couple of weeks before leaving Sweden.

There was an article in the opinion pages of our local newspaper in Göteborg, the Göteborgsposten. A gymnasium teacher in History and Religion questioned the large amounts of algebra taught in the Swedish school system (skip maths in the gymnasium). His arguments basically boil down to mathematics at the gymnasium level (algebra and pre-calculus for almost all students) being to difficult and many students fail with subsequent loss of carreer opportunities. And algebra is never used in the workplace anyway – it is simply irrelevant for all but a small minority. In his article he referred to a NYT article.

The first day in Beloit, Paul Campbell mentioned an article by David Hacker “Is Algebra Necessary?”in NYT. I immediately thought that it must be the same article, and it was of course.

I think the questions raised are very hard to answer – they should be taken seriously and not just swept under the rug emotionally – because emotionally as a mathematics teacher you may not want to hear that mathematics is largely irrelevant. I think many issues come in here, like alternatives to algebra (or rather complements) like Quantitative Literacy and Numeracy, Logic (proposed by the Swedish teacher), the question of why maths is so difficult for so many, the question of the subjects’ relevance, et cetera. I wont offer my attempts at answers here – but will return to them in separate posts.

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