A Problem to Solve

Should we blame Greek mathematician Diophantus or Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi? Depending on whom you ask, you’ll probably be told that one of them invented algebra, that hurdle which so many high school students fail to clear.

And maybe we’re just tormenting ourselves and our kids pointlessly by trying to clear it. Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, political scientist Andrew Hacker argued that failing to learn algebra is behind a lot of high school dropout rates (over 33% in some states), leading many kids to miss out on otherwise promising futures. “Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not,” Hacker asserted. “But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves.”

Of course, some proponents of algebra will argue that high standards are, to some extent, their own reward. In his book The New RealitiesPeter Drucker deplored what he saw as a loosening of academic standards in order to avoid accusations of “racism” and to appease “parents of the very children who need [the standards] most.”

But whether such standards should include algebra was another matter. Drucker recognized that many of the benchmarks of general learning have been chosen arbitrarily—leaving teachers trying to cram far too much information into young minds. The process “debases the subject matter, which has to adapt itself to the lack of experience in the student,” Drucker wrote in Landmarks of Tomorrow. “It thus becomes not only expensive time but wasted time.”

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For Drucker, the biggest timewaster he’d experienced during his eight years of Austrian Gymnasium was ancient languages—“Latin irregular verbs,” to be exact. “Yet, partly because it had no usefulness . . . it was—and still is—mistaken for higher education,” he wrote.

As for subjects to be studied, Drucker suggested that it was often hard to judge what makes sense and what doesn’t. “The practical test of education in educated society is whether it prepares for the demands of the work 15 years after graduation,” Drucker wrote. “Since we live in an age of innovation, a practical education must prepare a man for work that does not yet exist and cannot yet be clearly defined.”

So perhaps the question is whether algebra will prepare us for jobs in 2027. Call it the X factor.

What do you think: Should students have to demonstrate a mastery of algebra before they can graduate from high school?