Essay — From the September 2013 issue

Wrong Answer

The case against Algebra II

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In 1545, Girolamo Cardano, a doctor, a wearer of magical amulets, and a compulsive gambler, published a math book in Latin called Ars Magna. The “great art” of the title was algebra. When Cardano was done, he knew he had come up with something huge and powerful and timeless; on the last page was the declaration, written in five years, may it last as many thousands. The equations in Ars Magna looked very different from the ones we are familiar with — here, for instance, is how Cardano wrote the solution to x3 + 6x = 20:

Rv: cu. : R108 p : 10m : Rv :cu. R108m : 10

But the algebraic rules Cardano described and codified are variants of the techniques that millions of students are taught, with varying degrees of success, today.

That’s what’s so amazing and mysterious about the mathematical universe. It doesn’t go out of date. It’s bigger than history. It offers seemingly superhuman powers of interlinkage. It’s true. Mathematics, said a professor named James Byrnie Shaw in 1918, is a kind of ancient sequoia of knowledge, rooted in the labors and learning of the dead:

Its foliage is in the atmosphere of abstraction; its inflorescence is the outburst of the living imagination. From its dizzy summit genius takes its flight, and in its wealth of verdure its devotees find an everlasting holiday.

Illustration by Thomas Allen

Illustration by Thomas Allen

Then why, if math is so great and timeless and beautiful, do millions of people hate it so much? In particular, why do so many high school students hate algebra? On an opinion-gathering website called Amplicate, 86 percent of recent respondents registered a hatred for algebra — putting it near the top of Amplicate’s list of disliked high school subjects, just below geometry. Grant Wiggins, an educational consultant and former teacher, told me it was a “nasty gatekeeper course”: the compulsory Greek grammar of the modern era.

Lots of students love math, of course. It comes easily to them, or it doesn’t come easily but they are willing to put in the hours and they enjoy the challenge. (That’s my story, more or less: in high school, I took a week to memorize the problem-solving tactics in a Barron’s test-prep paperback and got a 93 on the New York State Regents Algebra II exam, learning, in the process, almost no actual math.) But many math conscripts are angry, many resigned, and some have reached states of real panic or despair. “From middle school until I graduated, math lessons were like Vogon poetry,” says one blogger. “I only survived by gnawing one of my own legs off.” Here are a few more of the thousands of anti-math opinions I encountered on the Web:

Algebra Needs To Die. I have been on honor roll since 4th grade! And I got my first C in Algebra, now I have an F with grades about to close and I don’t get it I just want to cry. Nothing makes sense. Where is this going to get me in life?

Is poking my eye with a pencil an acceptable substitute for my algebra homework?

Algebra is the huge fucking dam that prevents me from flowing, and being a better person.

I need to take 11 algebra tests in 2 hours. its six in the morning and I’ve got to pass them or I fail and I can’t start school till I pass. PRAY FOR THE GIRL IN PERPETUAL ALGEBRA HELL.

I have my Algebra EOC tomorrow. I have no clue what I am doing. There is almost exactly 24 hours until the test. So, if I just study and study and study, maybe I will actually get a 70 on it? Hell, I’ll take a 70. I ran my hand through my hair earlier when I woke up, and a bunch of hair came out. I’M STRESSING TO THE POINT WHERE MY HAIR IS FALLING OUT.

Algebra. “Weightlifting for the brain” my ass. More like death of all happiness in the world.

I really really hate Algebra 2, wish I was dead. . . . I want to kill myself. Help? If you can?

The reason these kids are upset is that they are required to do something they can’t do. They are forced, repeatedly, to stare at hairy, square-rooted, polynomialed horseradish clumps of mute symbology that irritate them, that stop them in their tracks, that they can’t understand. The homework is unrelenting, the algorithms get longer and trickier, the quizzes keep coming. Sooner or later, many of them hit the wall. They fail the course and have to take it again. And then again.

As a result, they feel angry, dumb, sometimes downright suicidal. A college professor, now in his fifties, who in high school unsuccessfully took algebra three years running, responded to a Washington Monthly blog post on the subject with his own tale of woe:

I have no idea, to this day, why I find math, and algebra in particular, so excruciatingly hard, but I do. I admire those who can learn it, but I could no more master algebra than I could leap off the roof and fly. The experience of being made to reenact your inability, over and over, is deeply warping. . . . If you continually ask a one-armed man to play the guitar, he’ll either come to hate himself or hate you.

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is the author of fourteen books. His new novel, Traveling Sprinkler, will be published this month by Blue Rider Press.

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