I can’t decide whether to be annoyed or amused by the opinion piece by Andrew Hacker entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?” in the New York Times on Sunday*. Annoyed because it is such an obviously flawed piece of writing, essentially saying that since (in the US) the system is failing to teach lots of people basic mathematics in school, the solution is to stop teaching it rather than figure out what is going wrong with the teaching process, while at the same time very lamely trying to make the case that it has no use anyway. Amused because it’s obviously flawed, and hopefully anyone reading it will laugh – one’s first thought has to be that it is not a serious article, given that it it is published in a respectable newspaper with reasonably educated editors.
But one can’t – shouldn’t – laugh, since there are (sadly) many people (lots of whom were educated in the very system under discussion) who might well take the whole thing seriously. Part of the problem is that the writer really does not seem to understand what Mathematics actually is, or what it is for, which I suspect reflects a lot of the flawed teaching that lies at the root of the issue. (Update: I recommend, for a change, browsing through some of the reader comments – at least the first few pages worth that I looked through – since the responses are interesting and at times amusing.)
Anyway, happily, I can also point to an excellent (and funny) response by Mark Chu-Carroll of Good Math, Bad Math, who has done a good job of getting angry enough to write something, but not too angry, thank goodness.