Friday, February 17, 2006

Promoting Ignorance

Sometimes I have to read something several times to be sure the author was serious. This was one of those, and sadly, the author was serious. From the Washington Post (why do I even go there?):

What Is the Value of Algebra?

I am haunted by Gabriela Ocampo.

Last year, she dropped out of the 12th grade at Birmingham High School in Los Angeles after failing algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it. So, according to the Los Angeles Times, she “gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School."

Gabriela, this is Richard: There’s life after algebra.

In truth, I don’t know what to tell Gabriela. The L.A. school district now requires all students to pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry in order to graduate. This is something new for Los Angeles (although 17 states require it) and it is the sort of vaunted education reform that is supposed to close the science and math gap and make the U.S. more competitive. All it seems to do, though, is ruin the lives of countless kids. In L.A., more kids drop out of school on account of algebra than any other subject. I can hardly blame them.

This piece was written by Richard Cohen, a well-known liberal columnist.

It turns out, as you read further, that what’s got Mr. Cohen upset is the idea of required subjects (such as algebra) for high school graduation. He objects to the idea of having to pass a test to graduate, as well. The column is specific to Los Angeles, which has such requirements for the first time this year.

I can understand (though I don’t agree with) other arguments I’ve heard against stringent graduation requirements. But Mr. Cohen is definitely thinking out-of-the-box here — his argument is that things like algebra shouldn’t be requirements because they’re not needed!

Oh, my. I posit that Mr. Cohen just doesn’t grasp what his world would be like without algebra. Virtually all the things he takes for granted — technology, cars, medicine, as obvious examples — would all be back in the Stone Age without algebra (amongst other things). As I hope most people understand better than Mr. Cohen apparently does, mathematics underlie an awful lot of things that separate us from the gerbils.

Mr. Cohen goes on to relate how algebra has never once been a requirement for him, once he left school. Well, that may well be, Mr. Cohen — it’s certainly possible to choose a career where no mathematics is required, just as it’s possible to choose a career where no ability to write prose is required. But neither of those statements says a darned thing about the importance of either area of study.

But here’s Mr. Cohen at his most condescending:

Look, Gabriela, I am not anti-algebra. It has its uses, I suppose, and I think it should be available for people who want to take it. Maybe students should even be compelled to take it, but it should not be a requirement for graduation. There are those of you, and Gabriela you are one, who know what it is like to stare at an algebra problem until you have eyeballed a hole in the page and not understand a thing you’re seeing . There are those of us who know the sweat, the panic, the trembling, cold fear that comes from the teacher casting an eye in your direction and calling you to the blackboard. It is like being summoned to your own execution.

"I suppose…” How arrogantly certain he is! And so certain about such a really dumb piece of advice, all projected from his own inability or lack of initiative to learn mathematics. And how typically liberal the notion that the kid’s feelings matter more than actually learning something. I’ve been battling that meme for a long time, which makes it all the more disheartening to see something like this from a prominent columnist…

And if you extrapolate this mindset (which I will remind you is very much like the National Education Association’s mindset), you can confidently predict America as a second-tier country in science and technology, with our leadership lost to those with a more … serious … educational system.

1 comment:

  1. In the old blog, Dave D. said:
    "Oh, my. I posit that Mr. Cohen just doesn’t grasp what his world would be like without algebra."

    Cohen’s no dummy, and I suspect he knows very well what the world would be like without algebra (or, perhaps more accurately, a world in which science and mathematics is largely in the hands of an elite few who produce all the high-tech goodies): it would be a world with lots of liberals (liberal because they were never required to master the zen of disciplined thinking), and lots of people who need — because they lack the mental tools essential for keeping themselves out of poverty — the assistance of the Nanny State social programs the liberals use to buy votes.

    Liberals need to be needed; and if there are not enough of the needy to suit them, they will promote policies designed to make more.

    Policies like not requiring algebra for high school graduation.