The liberal world vouches for math: Yesterday, we did a post about Andrew Hacker’s opinion piece about algebra. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/31/12. Scroll to the end.)
Drop-out rates are quite high, Hacker said. And uh-oh! “Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.”
We don’t know how many kids drop out because of algebra. In 2006, we did a four-part series about a superb news report in the Los Angeles Times concerning this very problem.
We don’t know how widespread this problem is. But we were struck by the way some liberals couldn’t seem to grasp, or identify with, the problem Hacker described.
At the Washington Monthly, Ryan Cooper was doing the weekend shift, filling in for Ed Kilgore. Cooper graduated from Reed in 2008. To our ear, he didn’t seem to have any idea who Hacker was talking about.
After snarking at Hacker a bit, he offered this rumination:
COOPER (7/30/12): In any case, this got me wondering. Suppose Hacker really is talking about basic algebra. I did that in eighth grade. From there I went through the usual cycle, through geometry and calculus, and then a couple math classes in college required for a chemistry degree, which were by far the hardest classes I’ve ever taken, leading to existential panics and profound self-reevaluations. And that barely scratched the surface of college-level material, which in turn isn’t even close to the work that real mathematicians do.Hacker wasn’t discussing “the average person.” To our ear, Cooper didn’t seem to know who Hacker was talking about.
I would estimate that in my school career I made it about 5 percent of the way to an actual high-level understanding of some kind of mathematics (since of course no one person can be an expert in every sub-field). In turn, I would estimate that basic algebra represents about one percent of my understanding at its peak (now significantly decayed), or roughly 0.05% of a full math education. Is the average person really so rubbish at math that they can’t handle that? Or, perhaps our culture has such an inferiority complex about math that we hamstring ourselves?
For years, we’ve told you—the liberal world quit on low-income kids several decades ago. We prance around praising ourselves about our tribe’s vast racial greatness. But when someone like Hacker writes a column like that, we don’t seem to have any idea who he’s talking about.
Forget about a lack of empathy. We can’t even picture the people we’re supposed to feel empathy for!
Kevin Drum did a respectful post on the same subject, asking a semi-skeptical question about the utility of algebra. We reacted to the bulk of his comments much as we did to Cooper’s post. It seemed to us that most of his readers had little idea who Hacker was talking about. To check for yourself, click here.
Drum linked to Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor. Volokh isn’t a liberal, but he pretty much completed the rule of three:
VOLOKH (7/30/12): I’m on a family trip, and will be blogging little if at all this week; but I had a chance to look at a New York Times op-ed titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” and thought it was worth passing along to see what our readers thought of it.Volokh went on to discuss Fermat’s Theorem.
My own quick reaction to the op-ed is negative—though I’m not certain of this, I suspect that algebraic problem-solving teaches useful mental habits that both open up possible future careers and also help train people’s general problem-solving abilities—but I don’t have time to say more about it. So instead of substance, I thought I’d note this sentence...
Question: Did Volokh understand who Hacker is talking about? Hint: Most of those struggling kids won’t be having “careers.”
Liberals quit on these kids a long time ago, although we keep insisting we didn’t. We make up for it through our skill at saying that everyone’s racist.