I am haunted by Gabriela
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.
I confess to be one
of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all
right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once),
barely passed it the second time -- the only proof I've ever seen
of divine intervention -- somehow passed geometry and resolved,
with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math
again. I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry
while I busied myself learning how to type. In due course, this
came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever
thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never
once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it.
You will never need to know -- never mind want to know
-- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits
halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that.
Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On
the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you
note -- or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked
you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that
you actually had to know something about your world, I would be
on its side. But algebra? Please.
or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning.
This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing
is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not.
The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school
who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history
and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly,
whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when
called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert
right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.
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.
Almost 20 years ago,
I wrote a similar column about algebra. Math teachers struck back
with a vengeance. They made so many claims for algebra's intrinsic
worth that I felt, as I once had in class, like a dummy. Once
again, I just didn't get it. Still, in the two decades since,
I have lived a pretty full life and never, ever used -- or wanted
to use -- algebra. I was lucky, though. I had graduated from high
school and gone on to college. It's different for you, Gabriela.
Algebra ruined many a day for me. Now it could ruin your life.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group