Is Algebra Necessary? – A Historically Consistent Salvo against America’s ‘Educational Elite’?

I remember a conversation I heard as a child. A University Vice Chancellor in India was speaking to a colleague about his conversation with the chief minister of his state. The chief minister was concerned  about failing grades of students from educationally-challenged communities. Finally, the chief minister said to the Vice Chancellor, “several generations of yours have studied in college, this is their first generation. Let them study“. The unspoken message was – lower your curriculum standards to the level that the students from educationally-challenged communities can handle. It was the Government’s goal, the society’s goal to to deliver a college degree to those students because it was important for their self-esteem and for their chances in the job market.

I remembered this conversation when I read the New York Times op-ed Is Algebra Necessary? The argument by the author is the same that the chief minister in India laid out decades ago – that educational requirements that are too difficult for students from educationally-challenged communities should be scrapped. 

The author of the NYT Op-Ed specifically argues that Algebra is too difficult, it is holding back millions of students and it is really not necessary:

  • “A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.”
  • “Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.”
  • “To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.”

First things first. The author, a professor emeritus of political science at Queens College of City University of New York, amply demonstrates that he has zero clue that Algebra is about abstract concepts and not about dexterity with numbers. Several readers of the NYT article have posted scathing comments about the author’s ignorance and his academically spurious argument. 

Our focus is very different. It springs from the undeveloped message of the author’s following point: 
  • Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee. Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry.
Underneath the above point lies a reality, a critically important social reality. Today aptitude & ability in learning a skill depends greatly on the environment in which a child grows up. This is especially true of analytical rigor. Look at the environment today’s children live in. Television, movies, talk shows all deliver a message that social skills are far more important than intellectual rigor. The author himself harps on social analysis or generating credible political opinions. 

There is nothing visible in society that stresses the importance of analytical rigor, of being able to use deduction or induction to prove a point. As a result, these critically important skills are being increasingly and perhaps only delivered via parents who are themselves adept at these skills. This is what is leading to the development of an ‘elite-education’ caste, a caste in America that delivers a hereditary advantage in rigorous education to its children. 

So what do I see as the subliminal message of the author’s paragraph quoted above? That a discipline like Algebra or Pure Mathematics creates an unfair hereditary advantage for a select ‘caste’ in America and damages the self esteem, the potential for individual growth of millions of other students who don’t have this hereditary advantage.

The author’s solution could be described as historically consistent and socially just. If Algebra/Mathematics is the stumbling block, then remove that block and let the students grow unfettered. That would increase graduation rates by clearing the hurdles that millions of students are unable to clear. This is required, the argument goes, because a college degree is the ladder to higher incomes, greater job opportunities and higher social status. So a lower educational standard is the price society needs to pay to reduce social inequality

It is a an early salvo of what I call America’s E-challenged or 3E coalition – a union of Economically challenged, Educationally-challenged and Ethnically-challenged. By the way, the Charles Murray/Robert Putnam research can be summarized in a one line set-theoretic description:

  • ((economically-challenged segment) (ethnically-challenged segment)) (educationally-challenged segment).
This is exactly the solution India’s elected politicians imposed on Indian Universities three decades ago. Educational standards were lowered, admission quotas were mandated for educationally-challenged communities, Universities were coerced into graduating students with washed down courses. It was the way for India’s electocracy to dilute the hereditary learning advantage of the elite ‘castes’. Did Indian Politicians succeed in their goals? Yes, they did. Was it the right thing to do for India? You be the judge: 
  • It is undeniable that India has succeeded in enabling the entry of previously E-challenged graduates into the Indian workforce. Today, every blue-collar worker, every low-scale employee, every maid, every janitor realistically dreams of sending his or her child to college to migrate to a white-collar job. It is an enormous social achievement that is eroding the old “caste” labels via education-led economics.   
  • It is also undeniable that the quality of education in India has fallen dramatically in the past 3-4 decades. Indian Universities are now educational skeletons. My own Institute was blessed in my time with a great Algebra professor, one of the 2-3 finest teachers I have ever seen anywhere. Today, the same Institute is considered an educational wasteland and its students are considered educationally illiterate. The Indian Government, we hear, has virtually given up on its 650 Universities & Colleges. This pathetic state is why today Indian students are running out of India to study in American, British, Australian or now even Chinese universities.
So after all the above, what do I think about the arguments in the article Is Algebra Necessary? 
  • I think the author is rather ignorant of what Algebra or Pure Mathematics is and why its study is of utmost importance in any scientific or business field in America. A few years ago, the CEO of Consol Energy, a coal mining company, bemoaned publicly about the lack of graduates with mathematical skills. Yes, coal mining now requires skill in Mathematics or Physics. White-shoe Wall Street that used to hire English graduates now prefers to hire graduates skilled in Mathematics or Physics. And yes, Facebook, the company that symbolizes social-networking, pays six-figure salaries to graduates with great mathematical skills.
  • But I also think that the author’s arguments support a major social cause in America – to lessen the educational inequality between America’s elite-education caste and the E-challenged American majority.
Frankly, what I think is totally irrelevant. Demographics is inexorably increasing the proportion of the educationally-challenged in the American electorate. This is why I think the attack on Algebra is merely an early salvo against America’s ‘elite-education’ caste. It is simply a corollary to what I consider to be a self-evident truth – that free voters will always vote in their self-interests. That corollary is – an electocracy will adapt to fulfill the interests of the voting majority

Send your feedback to [email protected] or @MacroViewpoints on Twitter