Is Algebra Necessary? – Andrew Hacker

Today on The Sunday Edition, on CBC Radio 1, host Michael Enright interviewed Andrew Hacker, about his controversial views on mathematics education. Basically, he thinks that demanding that all high school students master Algebra is “an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students”. Listening to the interview this morning made me angry. I don’t get riled up easily, but my blood was boiling this morning.

Here is the link to the radio interview. (It starts around the 6:30 mark and is about 24 minutes long.) Here is the article Andrew Hacker wrote for the New York Times.

I intend to write a detailed response to the claims of Andrew Hacker later this week, but first let me share some reckless assertions that pissed me off. (These are paraphrases.)

“Should we be learning mathematics for learning’s sake? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a liberal-arts professor; I teach multi-disciplinary courses. However, I think that we should be focusing on learning about mathematics: the history of mathematics, the philosophy of mathematics. Not the dry stuff.”

“Hacker: 1.7 million Americans enter American universities every year, all required to have some high school mathematics. How many do you think choose to major in mathematics?

Micheal Enright: I don’t even want to guess.

Hacker: 15 Thousand. This tells me that even though teachers have had the chance to show the students the ‘beauty of mathematics’ they just aren’t getting it. [Goes on to imply that it’s because this is too hard to do.] Why are we training all of these students in high school when so few are going into STEM [science, technology engineering and mechanics] careers?”

“Do people need to learn about Fermat’s Theorem [sic] or Rye-man’s Hypothesis [sic]?”

I agree that something is broken with the way we learn, teach and perceive mathematics, especially in middle years and high school. This is a conversation we must have. However, it is troubling when the social scientists try to use their irrelevant authority to persuade the masses, leveraging the common man’s bias against mathematics.

I’m mad. I don’t like when people piss on what I love, and I especially dislike when they do it while tricking the public. As people we need emotions: love, anger, joy, contempt; but as a people we need thought, analysis, reason and mathematics to universally prevail.

Again, I plan on writing a cool-headed, but strong reply, and this is just me venting. Until then, let me leave you with this, taken from JFK’s famous speech:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”