Monday, February 20, 2006

WaPo Columnist Haunted By Innumerate 12th-Grader

Oh, bite me, Richard Cohen.
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...
Sounds like he's lobbying for a raise, no?
There are those of you, and [symbolic victim of American education system] 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.
Italics his, and blood-curdling they certainly are. Not understanding something? My god, the horror!

I would venture to say that I use algebra (albeit not in the sense that Cohen means it) on a daily basis, and I'd also venture to say that I spend a large part of those days squarely in that state of hopeless incomprehension that Cohen regards as "like being summoned to [his] own execution." Cohen is absolutely right that his sacrifical math student can live a happy and productive life without ever having to solve simultaneous equations. On the other hand, it does not occur to him that teaching students to deal with notions that are abstract and difficult to understand might have value outside an algebra textbook - a broader value that he is apparently willing to grant to the high school history syllabus. After all, without a little measured humility (and few things are more humbling than mathematics) you might well end up, as a professional writer, confusing the ability to reason with the knowledge of specific facts (such as the location of deserts) and making cringe-inducing statements such as:
Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not.
While this may indeed be true, Richard Cohen himself gives us no reason whatsoever to believe it.