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Algebra? The how, what, and why we learn
Harvey Gold's op-ed column on providing a balanced and relevant education.

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Date published: 9/7/2012

IN HIS Aug. 28 op-ed ["The 'x' factor: Do we all need to study algebra?"], Harry Jones concluded that students don't need to study algebra because once they have completed the course they never again have need for the information they learned.

His opinion may be influenced by his admission that he struggled through algebra courses in high school and college and was basically a "D student." Perhaps his opinion is also affected by a cynical humorist he admires, Fran Lebowitz, whom he reports as saying, "After high school there is no such thing as algebra." He was not quite accurate on the quote because references indicate that she said: "In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra."

My correction is not nit-picking. The inaccuracy amplifies a cavalier attitude toward a vital subject. This is a symptom of many problems in our country's educational school system.

Perhaps one major flaw in algebra opponents' position is that they fail to recognize that the real purpose of education is for students to learn to think, analyze, understand, and solve a wide variety of problems that are often complex. To do this, the more knowledge one has, the more he or she can draw from a "storehouse of information." And the more disciplines we know, the better we understand what information is needed to solve a problem.


How does a high school student know what he wants to do in life until he gets a taste of the multitude of jobs, professions, and ways of life that are open to him? If he doesn't get a taste of algebra, how will he know it is hard, or useful, or something he may not want to pursue? What about a student who doesn't want to go to college but likes to build things--houses, perhaps? For him, algebra may not be algebra but rather a necessary tool to build a house.

The same applies to other studies. A dietitian might not need to know and memorize the Krebs cycle, but he does need to have chemistry and physiology to understand the composition, metabolism, and value of food.

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