Sunday, February 19, 2006

Pie Thag o'Rus

I've seen mention here and there of an article by syndicated columnist Richard Cohen arguing that algebra just isn't a necessary subject. Lots of people are ganging up to describe the degree to which Cohen's "argument" is wrong-headed, of which I've linked the two best versions of that view that I've seen, so I'll leave it at that, at least on that score. I just have a couple of unrelated thoughts here:

:: You can always find someone, somewhere, who will insist that their life constitutes evidence that certain subjects should not be required ones in school. Lance notes the business majors who resent learning English Lit; I had to listen to music majors speaking angrily about the rudimentary Philosophy of Science class that was required of every person on campus; and so on. The problem with this is that sooner or later you get a "critical mass" of people who agree that a given subject just isn't that important, and then, bam! That subject becomes a mere "elective", and then its support erodes and erodes and erodes until it finds itself looking back wistfully on the days when it was a vibrant thing that everybody learned, even as the budget axe descends upon its funding and its teachers find themselves looking for scarce positions in richer districts. Art and music today, algebra tomorrow? Ugh.

:: As my readers surely know, I work in a grocery store, where among other things I clean bathrooms, sweep floors, and hang signs. But here's the thing about hanging signs: I don't just slap 'em up on the wall. I have to center them and make them look right, and that becomes more involved when there are multiple signs going up on a single wall. Then I start measuring things and dividing the length and height of the wall by the length and height of the signs and so on. That involves math, which in turn involves albegraic-type thinking. And yet I went to college to study first music, and then Philosophy. So whenever any student-type teeny-bopper makes the "I'm never gonna need to know this stuff" argument, my main response is, "Great, and while you've got your crystal ball out, tell me what next week's lottery numbers are."

(On a tangential note, this is why I always get angry when the scientifically ignorant scoff at the things that research scientists study. This is always framed as "Look what your tax dollars are supporting!" But if you read just two or three books on the history of science, you'll be astonished at the frequency with which something that somebody studied years, decades, or even centuries before turns out to be really useful information somehow, someday.)

:: As for Cohen: I'd just like to note how much it pisses me off when somebody stupid makes far more money in the course of being stupid than I do in the course of being smart. I'm very happy with what I'm doing, but it still galls me to see someone being very successful by virtue of giving Stupidity a big, sloppy, wet kiss.

End of rant.

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