Précis — August 19, 2013, 1:10 pm

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.”

September 2013Young 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.” 

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