Bob Driver: ‘You Need Algebra!’ Says Who?

“Algebra I is the most critical course students take in high school, and the ultimate gateway to success in higher education.”

Do you believe that statement? I don’t.

That declaration was the lead sentence in a recent full-page advertisement by a company that sells DVDs and CDs aimed at lifting the intellects of Americans willing to spend the time and money to complete the courses.

The ad offers to teach us how to “Master the Fundamentals of Algebra I.” I don’t dispute that promise. What I dispute is the idea that algebra is critically important to most high school students, and that it is “the ultimate gateway” to higher education.

For most students, algebra is a royal pain in the neck. Or brain. To them it’s critically important just to get through the course without going crazy. The “ultimate gateway” is the door leading out of the schoolroom on the final day of algebra class.

In my varied (although undistinguished) academic career, algebra was the only course that actually made me weep. Doing my homework each night, I would strive to understand factoring, quadratic equations, word problems and the other elements of my 10th-grade algebra class. And I would usually fail. How I attained a passing grade is beyond me.

The word algebra comes from an Arabic expression meaning “reunion of broken parts.” And that’s what I felt like by the time the course ended. The broken part, not the reunion. I could (but won’t) point part of my algebraic travail toward the class teacher. He was the high school’s assistant basketball coach. He talked out of the side of his mouth, and sometimes seemed as confused about algebra as his students were.

Today my only certainty about algebra is that, in the years that followed, I have not needed it or used it more than a couple dozen times. Obviously, if I had later majored in science or engineering I couldn’t make that statement.

But instead I took college courses in English, political science and other disciplines that do not require arcane symbols and concepts to express useful meanings.

Here I should inject this truth: although most persons will not employ algebra in their daily lives, almost all of us benefit from the many applications of algebra and other branches of mathematics in science, engineering, medicine, commerce and information technology.

Journalists, poets and advertising executives have their uses, but they don’t put men on the moon or cure polio.

If algebra is not “the ultimate gateway to success in higher education,” what subject is? If such a gateway actually existed, most students would flock toward it.

If “higher education” can be translated as “a high-paying job,” the answers begin to appear. Among them, I suppose, would be law, banking, investments and plastic surgery.

I’d also suggest spelling, grammar and diction as possible gateways to higher levels of learning. Few things will sink a college application more quickly than essays studded with such pearls as “Between you and I, my goal is to acheive a batcheler’s degree in veternary meddicine.”

From reading a cross-section of citizen comments on Facebook and Twitter, I must conclude that English-language fundamentals don’t rank very high on the genuine concern list of the average American.

As I waded through the educational delights of a dozen small-town Pennsylvania schools (including two one-roomers), I had no hope of finding my way into higher education. My parents lacked the money to send their children to college. Despite that, they insisted that the three of us assault our homework assignments five nights a week, and that our monthly report cards showed all A’s and B’s, or else.

A few years later when the Korean GI Bill opened the doors of college to me, my parents’ enforced discipline paid off. That’s why today, when someone says that algebra is the ultimate gateway to success in higher education, I say “baloney.”

I say the gateway consists of parents who insist their kids toe the schoolwork line, even when there’s no certainty of where the line may lead.


Bob Driver writes for the Tampa Bay Newspapers. His email address is [email protected] Column courtesy of Context Florida.


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