Is algebra really that necessary?

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By John Pawlak

When on the East coast visiting family, my brother and I were driving along Route 1 and we saw a hardware store with a huge “Going out of business — 50 percent off everything” sign. As any man will attest to, one can never own enough hammers or screwdrivers!
The store was full of men filling baskets with useless articles that would no doubt prompt an argument when they got home.
“Yes, I know we live in a one room apartment, sweetheart. But you never know when you might need an arc welder!”
My brother’s cart was nearly full of equally redundant articles, and then he saw the golden goose. Off in the corner, some expensive items had a tag saying, “Take an additional 50 percent off.”
Seriously, how can one survive without a 12-inch dual-bevel slide miter saw? It was a gorgeous Bosch model originally selling for $480.
At the counter, the young teen struggled with the complicated task of deducting 50% off each item. When he got to the chop-saw, he said, “Uh, let’s see. That’s 50% off, and another 50% off. Uh, well then, that means it’s free, right?”
For a brief moment, my brother and I rather relished the idea of being criminals. But we just couldn’t rob the store owner like that, so we corrected the math for the struggling soul.
Yeah, this is another Pawlak-rant about the waning math skills in this country. It just doesn’t add up.
I was in a coffee shop in Albuquerque and there was no half and half at the milk bar.
When I asked, the waitress said, “We’re out of half and half. But if you want, I can give you heavy cream. We have lots of heavy cream.”
So I told her, “Well, if you guys have heavy cream, you can make half and half. Just mix regular milk with the heavy cream.”
She seemed surprised and said, “Really?” and then she asked me — (OK, begin the drum roll with mathematical precision) — “How much of each do I mix together?”
No one seems to know where this confusion with basic math comes from.
Have enemies of math (the Al-Gebra terrorists) put lead in our water?
Last year, Andrew Hacker wrote in the New York Times Sunday Review, “Is Algebra Necessary?”
His criticism against the value of teaching math beyond basic numerical skills set off an exponential tempest of geometric rebuttals.
This month, Nicholson Baker threw in his conical hat and wrote “Wrong Answer: The Case Against Algebra 2” in Harper’s Magazine.
And of course, math addicts and number crunchers will debate this to the limit as X approaches infinity.
The question being asked is, how much math is really necessary?
Okay, you don’t need to know how to graph a rotated ellipse to successfully make half and half. And for those who can’t compute 50 percent of a number, calculators are inexpensive and readily available (not to mention the math apps on smart phones).
Yet another columnist decided to discount math (by a large percentage), writing “How many people need to know the quadratic equation?”
She just doesn’t get it. (Or as my math students would say - dunngedit). You learn math by using it, and if using it to solve the quadratic equation helps master basic arithmetic, then that has value.
Why is it that people have no problem with learning how to ride a bicycle?
Falling down and scraping our knees doesn’t deter us from getting back up and trying again, and again, and again until we “gedit.”
How much math do we need to learn?
Well, certainly enough to know how to divide a number by two. And enough to take us beyond the obvious.
Arithmetic is numerical paint, and Algebra is the brush.
The canvas is the mind and hence limited only by one’s imagination.
The abstraction of Algebra exercises the brain and helps develop one’s ability to paint further than arm’s reach.
As Blaine Pascal (1623-1662) remarked, “We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end.”
Let math be the wind that brings us to the horizons we desire!