Sunday, February 19, 2006

If Columnist A writes something incredibly dumb on Tuesday, and Blogger B calls him on it on Wednesday...

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen has advised high school students everywhere that algebra is a waste of their time.

You're never going to have to solve an algebra problem again in your life, he says, unless of course you do something foolish with yourself and become a scientist or a mathematician or something useless like that, instead of pursuing the higher calling of Washington Post columnist. And if life does surprise you some time and throw a problem your way that requires algebra to solve, well, don't worry, that's what computers and calculators are for.

No, that's what androids like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation are for.

Data is conscious, he can reason on his own, and he can self-direct. He can recognize a problem as it develops and solve it without Picard having to tell him, Make it so.

Computers and calculators have to be told what to do. And if you can't recognize an algebra problem when faced with it, if you can't translate a problem into an algebraic equation yourself, how do you instruct the computer? What numbers do you punch into your calculator and in what order? Which function keys are you going to press?

If you haven't studied algebra how do you even know that the problem in front of you can be solved by doing some algebra?

But here's the flip side: If you have studied algebra and internalized its logic, there's a very real possibility that you are doing algebra all the time without even knowing that's what you're doing. Of course it would be of a rudimentary sort. But just because you don't see all the x's and y's and z's over a's and a's divided by b's in your head, doesn't mean that you haven't reasoned that problem through in an essentially mathematical way.

Doesn't mean that you're like the poet who doesn't know it either and are an unconcious mathematical genius. I'm just saying that the things we learn when we are young have a habit of being useful later in life even though we don't necessarily remember when, where, how, and if we learned them. And that's the argument for a liberal education, for learning as much about every subject as we can get our heads around. At 14, 16, 18, 22, 30, we don't know if we're ever going to need to know history, geography, art history, algebra, or organic chemistry. We don't know if we're ever going to need to be able to bake a cake or repair a computer. We can guess that some things are more likely to come up than others, but we don't know.

The purpose of an education is to expand the mind and soul in preparation for whatever the future brings.

Cohen, a supposedly educated man, is arguing for a purely vocational education system.

PZ Myers is appalled by Cohen's column, as both a scientist and college professor, of course.

Algebra is not about calculating the answer to basic word problems: it's about symbolic reasoning, the ability to manipulate values by a set of logical rules. It's basic stuff—I know many students struggle with it, but it's a minimal foundation for understanding mathematics and everything in science. Even more plainly, it's a basic requirement for getting into a good college...

Because Cohen's column is framed as a letter to a specific young woman, Myers is also appalled as a Liberal with strong feminist principles:

Because Richard Cohen is ignorant of elementary mathematics, he can smugly tell a young lady to throw away any chance being a scientist, a technician, a teacher, an accountant; any possibility of contributing to science and technology, of even being able to grasp what she's doing beyond pushing buttons. It's Richard Cohen condescendingly telling someone, "You're as stupid as I am; give up."

But finally it's as a humanist that Myers is most outraged. Cohen writes, "I have lived a pretty full life and never, ever used—or wanted to use—algebra." And Myers replies:

If sheep could talk, they'd say the same thing.

Yeah, a person can live a good, bland life without knowing much: eat, watch a little TV, fornicate now and then, bleat out opinions that the other contented consumers will praise. It's so easy.

Or we could push a little bit, stretch our minds, challenge ourselves intellectually, learn something new every day. We ought to expect that our public schools would give kids the basic tools to go on and learn more—skills in reading and writing, a general knowledge of their history and culture, an introduction to the sciences, and yes, mathematics as a foundation. Algebra isn't asking much. It's knowledge that will get kids beyond a future of stocking shelves at WalMart or pecking out foolish screeds on a typewriter.

We're supposed to be living in a country built on Enlightenment values, founded by people who knew the importance of a well-rounded education...

In Richard Cohen we have a 21st century man insisting that an 18th century education is too much for our poor students.

I think Cohen would probably defend himself by saying that he was only trying to point out that people have different skills and talents and there are plenty of ways for a person to make a living besides as a scientist or mathematician. Atrios makes a similar point here.

The difference between Cohen and Atrios is that Atrios is pointing out a fact of life, while Cohen seems to have internalized the purely utilitarian approach to education: You go to school for job training. If you don't see any immediate prospect that studying a particular subject is going to lead to a paycheck, don't bother with it. Cohen is the English major version of all those business majors who can't fathom why they have to read Shakespeare. "Why do we need to know how to write well? Isn't that what PR flunkeys are for?"

It's not surprising that people who have devoted their lives to making a buck, judge everything by its dollar value. But it's dismaying that so many people like Cohen, who have supposedly devoted their lives to loftier ambitions, accept the idea that education is most important as career training, including a great many educators.

This comes out every time "Boys are in trouble" or "Girls are in trouble" issue arises in the Media---it was on display recently in this Newsweek cover story.

For over 200 years, from when the Pilgrims landed until sometime after the Civil War, schooling was just about useless to the future careers of most students because they were going to grow up to be farmers or laborers. But their parents still sent them off to school.

Times have changed. As Atrios points out, a higher education isn't truly necessary for many jobs that you can't get without a diploma of one sort or another. But people don't see that. What they see is: Diploma=good job. Diplomas are given out by schools. Therefore, since if A=C, and B=C, A=B, then school=good job.

Cross-posted at Ezra Klein's place.


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