Nicholson Baker Argues that Algebra II Shouldn’t Be a Required Course
“Life’s prerequisites are courtesy and kindness, the times tables, fractions, percentages, ratios, reading, writing, some history — the rest is gravy, really.”
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
“Life’s prerequisites are courtesy and kindness, the times tables, fractions, percentages, ratios, reading, writing, some history — the rest is gravy, really.”
Young people, rejoice, you have a friend in Nicholson Baker (though we do recommend you wait a couple more years before reading his novels). Baker feels your pain — the pain of Algebra II, which, he argues in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine, should be kept out of the Common Core. Students, he writes, “are forced, repeatedly, to stare at hairy, square-rooted, polynomialed horseradish clumps of mute symbology that irritates them, that stop them in their tracks, that they can’t understand.”
Baker calls the course textbook, Algebra 2 Common Core, “a highly efficient engine for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap heap of repellent terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized, multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes.”
He speaks with many who agree with him, even people who are proficient with algorithms. “I’m a math guy, it’s not like I’m some fuzzy-headed humanist,” education reformer Grant Wiggins tells Baker. “You don’t need algebra for the majority of jobs. You need it for the burgeoning field of high-tech, but that’s not all the jobs. I just don’t get it.”
“Good heavens, no,” number theorist Underwood Dudley replies when asked by Baker if Algebra II should be required of all high schoolers. “Forcing people to take mathematics is just terrible. We shouldn’t do it.” Dudley believes that a silent majority of math teachers share this opinion. Steven Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell, calls for the amount of math to be diminished, and for what is taught to be made more meaningful for the average child. “As someone who is working on the front lines,” he tells Baker, “it’s alarming to me, and discouraging that year after year I see such a large proportion of people really not learning anything — and just suffering while they’re doing it. We spend a lot of time avalanching students with answers to things that they wouldn’t think of asking.”
Baker agrees that less is more. He proposes “a new, one-year teaser course for ninth graders, which would briefly cover a few techniques of algebraic manipulation, some mind stretching geometric proofs, some nifty things about parabolas and conic sections, and even perhaps a soft-core hint of the infinitesimal, change-explaining powers of calculus. Throw in some scatter plots and data analysis, a touch of mathematical logic, and several representative topics in math history and math appreciation.”
Apparently nixing Algebra II is a touchy subject. Dudley warns Baker that he will get in trouble for writing about it. “The entire math department at the University of Tennessee stopped speaking to me,” said Michael Smith of the response to a book he wrote questioning the practical necessity of higher math in schools. “You’ve got a very tough subject to tackle,” says Michael Wiener, who wrote a book about the national obsession with college-prep math courses. “I feel sorry for you. It’s like quicksand. The more you get into this, the more you’ll sink.”
More from Harper’s Magazine:
Mentions — July 16, 2014, 7:00 pm
Watch Jessica Bruder on MSNBC’s The Cycle
Official Business — June 25, 2014, 8:00 am
Heart of Empire, Mentions — June 20, 2014, 11:41 am
Andrew Cockburn discusses the origins and possible fate of Nouri al-Maliki’s prime ministership
Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:
Cari Beauchamp, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, Charles Scribner's Sons (N.Y.C.)
Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.
Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.
“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”