I read with interest an op-ed piece in this morning’s paper, written by a 20-something man who has not been able to pass an algebra class; not in high school and not in college. He can pass other classes with admirable grades – even geometry – but not the class that has the the audacity to mix letters with numbers. To graduate from high school, his administrators counted his accounting class, which he passed, as an algebra equivalent since he could not graduate without it. But in community college, algebra still haunted him like the zombie that can’t be stopped. He wrote: “Now I’ve finally dropped out, and am supporting myself through writing…I would love to learn more about art, philosophy, literature, and history in a college setting. But math requirements will prevent that. Should they?”
I can relate to this guy. Maybe a lot of writers and artistic thinkers can. Math was never my strong suit. I got my first “D” ever in Algebra in high school. First ever. It was demoralizing. I didn’t do D’s. I had a great GPA, was on the honor roll, was highly motivated, and I really gave it my best. I retook the class in summer school in a desperate attempt to rid that blemish from my record. I am happy to say that with a better teacher (she used colored chalk and made up stories about the letters and numbers…) I got an A. My GPA was restored and so was my validation as a contributing member of society. But then I took the SAT. You can probably guess how I did on the math component. I sweated all through bonehead algebra my freshman year of college. I knew I HAD to pass it to graduate with any kind of degree. Any kind. I did pass that class, but that’s not the point.
What if I hadn’t? Sure, I could have hired a tutor, taken it again, taken it three times if necessary. But why do we place such inordinate value on algebra, as if it is the bouncer at the door of all career aspirations? And sure, this guy can learn what he wants by taking classes online, reading, attending lectures, etc. But what he wanted was a college education.
Some of us just aren’t wired to think algebraically. But we still think. We can still balance a check book, and figure out percentages on after-Christmas sales, do our own taxes, and estimate how many gallons of paint to buy to freshen up the living room.
When I look at letters of the alphabet, I don’t see quadratic equations. I see letters that want to become words that want to become a story.
Algebra and all her many cousins are great to have around. I am thankful there are people like my beautiful niece who is on her way to graduate school after graduating sum cum laude with an applied mathematics degree. Wise mathematicians keep the world spinning.
And people like me write the stories that keep the world interesting… That guy should be able to stay in college.
My two cents.
Or should I say my 2(3x – 7) + 4 (3 x + 2) = 6 (5 x + 9 ) + 3 cents