In The New York Times opinion section on Sunday, CUNY professor Andrew Hacker asked readers a question: Is Algebra Necessary? Mr. Hacker eventually reasoned the answer was no. Hundreds of his readers across the country screamed back, “Yes!”
These opinion articles are predisposed to garner strong reactions. Close to 100 readers might comment on an opinion piece on a controversial topic such as American involvement in the Middle East. Mr. Hacker’s article drove 474 commentators to their computers before The Times stopped accepting the respondents.
They weren’t to be halted; they then turned to the open platform of the web. Bloggers and mathematicians alike took to their keyboards to pile on the rage and some praise about the suggestion that algebra should be an elective.
Mr. Hacker, for one, is shocked. “My home computer is just about undergoing a seizure,” he told The Observer yesterday afternoon when we reached him over the phone. “I’ve been getting e-mails from Abilene, Texas! I’m surprised the gray old New York Times has infiltrated all of these places.”
While many of those who were driven to blog about the issue seem to vehemently oppose Mr. Hacker’s stance, he told us the e-mails and comments he has received have also been positive. His wife discovered a post on the the Facebook page of The Monkees band member Michael Nesmith defending Mr. Hacker’s stance on the issue after novelist Jane Smiley sent him a link to the op-ed. “Forcing me to learn school-taught algebra was like trying to teach a lion table manners,” wrote Mr. Nesmith. “Manners are useful, but not so much to a lion.”
“Then he got 600 more comments about me,” Mr. Hacker laughed.
Despite the outrage, Mr. Hacker remains firm as ever on his stance against mandatory algebra, and even more so against an abstract group of people he labels as “math people” or “math major.”
He doesn’t agree that algebra skills are necessary. He then asked The Observer—reporters and likely holders of degrees not so numbers oriented—if we studied math at any point during college (we haven’t). “Math majors,” he tells us, “math majors have their minds so sharpened, that their opinions about Syria are more valid than your opinions about Syria because once you do math and algebra, your mind becomes superior and so do your opinions in every field.”
He does believe that algebra sharpens the mind, but he doesn’t feel this brain sharpening should be required. As a result, he tells us he has been called “anti-intellctual” and “anti-rigor.”
“I’m all in favor of rigor,” said Mr. Hacker. “Chess! Chess would be a marvelous way to sharpen minds. I don’t think millions of students should be mandated to play chess.”
This is not the first time Mr. Hacker has stirred the academic pot. His book about the “myth” of higher education decried tenure. But he insists that his intent is not to cause as much trouble as he often does. “Whenever you question a possession that people have, like money, tenure, math knowledge, they get very defensive,” he explained.
But that’s not going to stop Mr. Hacker from writing his opinions about what he sees to be fact versus what he asserts is fiction. “You know what? I’m a professor, I’m a scholar and I’m interested in the truth,” he told us. “If I see there’s myth, superstition and self-delusion I think, ‘Hey, there’s a thing called academic freedom, we’ll blow the whistle.’”
Dan Willingham, author of Why Students Don’t Like School and professor at the University of Virginia, presented a more typical argument to The Observer. “If you leave it up to an eighth grader or ninth grader, they’re probably not going to opt into algebra,” he said.
Mr. Willingham said the result might be stronger disparities between poor and wealthy families in terms of achievement and college educations, adding that tracking in this manner can be a problem because without the foundation algebra and the core principles it introduces, mathematics, in general, won’t be as helpful in the future. “You’re going to end up limiting the greater possibility of what kids can do.”
After reading the argument, Mr. Willingham penned his own opposition to the piece called “Yes, Algebra is Necessary,” on his personal website.
According to him, many of the comments supporting Mr. Hacker seemed to rely on personal experiences. “Everyone has individual stories,” he told us. “They know someone who hated math and hated being subjected to it. But there are lots of counter stories of kids who thought they hated math but ended up working through it and are glad they did.”
Many of the articles comments opened their arguments with phrases like “I thought this was satire” or “Seriously?” Mr. Willingham himself began his counter saying that when he saw the op-ed, he “mistook it for a joke.”
He recognizes that the argument got pretty heated. “It is actually a little personal,” he told us. “It’s obviously very provocative, calling for a major realignment as what we think of as standard curriculum. But also, as funny as it sounds, people love math.”
Meanwhile, the heartfelt criticisms have, if anything, made Mr. Hacker more certain his position is correct. He thinks the “math people” doth protest too much. “I have a hunch they know their case isn’t that strong.”