I Didn’t Use Algebra Once

Image: Adam Hayes

Image: Adam Hayes

“In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra. ” 
― Fran Lebowitz

Today, I was sitting here watching the snow fall from my writing space, eating my grilled cheese and furiously wondering what I am going to write about. I asked my muse’s to send me a prompt. As I was going through my Facebook news feed a couple of my friends posted a meme which says: “Another day has passed, and I didn’t use Algebra once! ” Unless you are a mathematician, scientist, or math lover, I think most of us agree: There are just some things we learn (or try to learn) in high school which do not serve us later OR do they?

Even though I argued with my mother that Algebra is useless in school, and just like my daughter said to me just last week:

“Mom!! I will never USE algebra in my life EVER! Really, I just don’t get it!”

So my question is, why do they teach it at school? Why not just stick to basic math?

I went online and read a few articles about the subject, and found one which states, in its conclusion:

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer. ~Andrew Hacker New York TimesIs Algebra Necessary

I have to agree with Mr. Hacker, I do believe there are things we learn in school which serve us in our future, however, Algebra just made me feel stupid. So how many of us, like my children today, go around thinking we are dumb because we just don’t grasp a + b = xyz?

Then I read this quote, and this in fact, summarizes in different words what I was trying to tell my daughter:

“Learning algebra isn’t about acquiring a specific tool; it’s about building up a mental muscle that will come in handy elsewhere. You don’t go to the gym because you’re interested in learning how to operate a StairMaster; you go to the gym because operating a StairMaster does something laudable to your body, the benefits of which you enjoy during the many hours of the week when you’re not on a StairMaster.” — Steven Johnson, “Everything Bad Is Good For You” – Why Learn Algebra

On the same train of thought, how many things did we learn in our lives that we thought we didn’t need, and wonder, was it a total waste of brain space?

Being exposed to different subjects throughout our lives, as Mr. Johnson states, can prove to be beneficial.  Subjects like Algebra, can help us sift through the things we love, the things we are good at, exercise our brains AND learn that “Hey I am not good at everything. I have my strengths, my weaknesses, and I think I will go:

 ————— > THIS WAY! 

doodle butterflyToday, at 47 years old as I am just discovering and believing in my artistic talent.  What about my artistic children? Where do they fit in? Why doesn’t society focus on art ed, phys ed, and drama, music and the like as much as it focuses on grammar and math? I mean, wow, there seems to be NO room for creativity in math, and what a way to develop our brains, both left and right, with music and art!

Just the other day, while watching Pitch Perfect, my son taught himself to sing and play the “cup” by banging and twirling it around to create a beat, and sing a capella. There is left/right brain going on right there. How clever!!

We are a family of artists, and I nurture it as much as I can in my children, however both of them KNOW that “Mom this doesn’t count in school! Everyone passes in art and music!!” Not every child has a talent for drawing and not every child has a talent for math.

SO WHY is ONE more important than the other?

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for math in the world, however, why don’t we leave algebra as an alternative class for those who love LOVE it. I mean, they are the ones who are going to be our future scientists and physicists. What not open up the world of knowledge to the artistic children and give them something they can use.

Creative writing, for instance. Much room to grow. I would have loved if a teacher would have noticed how much of a good writer I am.. no no.. in my days, there was no room for being me in school. Write what you are told or don’t write.

This is how I see Algebra. Write the right formula, get the right outcome or fail! How can that mean anything to a student. It still means absolutely nothing to me.

I told me daughter, while answering her above question, is yes I agree there is a place to introduce many subjects to a child. This way the child can discover what they love and what the excel at. Logic and reason has a place in school. However, to make certain subjects mandatory as pass/fail for high-school, well I think in this day and age there is place for revision.

In light of all this, there are things we will learn and so easily forget, but I will remember those things which held meaning in my life, I may not understand algebra, or most math equations, but I do remember how I taught myself to focus on what matters most.

Tell me what you think!!

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  1. “I mean, wow, there seems to be NO room for creativity in math,”

    So… what do you think mathematicians *do* all day, just mindlessly go through some fixed process? There’s plenty of room for creativity in math, and the fact that you presumably got a bad math education doesn’t mean it’s useless.

    • Kim

      March 19, 2013 at 12:56 pm

      I never said Math was useless Kata. I am speaking more in terms of Algebra where I state that many of us “non mathematicians” do not use it daily.

      I have a high respect for those who can totally understand Algebra. The subject just eludes me.

      And you are right about the creativity, I should have worded this differently (although notice the word “seems” I didn’t say there isn’t)

      Thank you for your feedback.

    • There is creativity in Math. But not at the level where students are taught. You basically did this.

      Someone said something like living in a poor ghetto in America is miserable. And you replied with how politicians and movie stars are living it up. So what? That changes nothing. Math at the Algebra level taught to students is literally memorization of formulas, repetition until test time then brain dump.

      No understanding (like it is supposed to teach) no applications, no foresight into more advanced uses, nothing. Just learn it, pass and go away.

      And I agree with the no creativity of math pushers. If they are so great at being creative, problem solving, critical thinking, etc etc. Then why is the solution to our nations failure to get algebra to start earlier and do more of the same thing that does not work? Isn’t insanity doing the same thing over and expecting different results?

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