Nicholson Baker, Algebra II, Lurking Variables and Making Shakespeare Elective

calvinIn a recent article in Harper’s magazine, “Wrong Answer – The case against Algebra II”, author Nicholson Baker argues against having Algebra II as a required course in the high school math curriculum. He points out that when we force students to take such abstract and rarely used concepts as rational functions or Fourier analysis, we do nothing but produce thousands of students who not only hate algebra, but math in general.

Baker marshals an impressive array of witnesses, many of them mathematicians, who support the view that Algebra II should be an elective. Towards the end of his article, Baker writes: “Math-intensive education hasn’t done much for Russia, as it turns out.”  In other words, Russia is an example of an inverse correlation between math-intensive education and…what? Material benefits? Political freedom? Democracy? Let’s say the general well-being of the population.

I would argue that Baker’s statement is an example of a lurking variable.

Russia’s math prowess was originated from above, when Peter the Great modernized Russia by force. Since modernization implied a strong army, engineers were sought for armaments, fortifications and building a navy. Mathematics therefore became a prized skill/profession, one encouraged and compensated by the government. Mathematics thus became an avenue for an individual’s material progress, increased freedom and respect.

Peter’s tradition continued in Communist Russia, where engineers were needed for another round of forced industrialization, building an armaments industry, including a nuclear arsenal and a rocket force. (The hard sciences did not escape Stalinist purges, but in general mathematicians fared better under Stalin’s murderous repression than other professions).

Therefore, the “math-intensive education” variable in Russia was associated with government support, support that over the years morphed into respect for math in the general population.  If the explanatory variable is “math-intensive education” and the response variable is “the general well being of the population”, government directed activities are a lurking variable that affects both the explanatory and the response variables and hence the correlation. A certain type of actions, forced by the government through coercion or financial rewards, is the one variable that in Russia affected both the direction of the education and the well-being of the population.

The “command” style of Russian political life affected both an emphasis on math education and (negatively) the well being of the population.

Baker continues:  “But historical counterexamples don’t seem to interest the latest generation of crisis-mongers. We’ve once again gotten ourselves caught up in a strangely self-destructive statistical cold war with other high-achieving countries.”  Perhaps, but a recent report suggests that American workers are becoming less productive because they are falling behind in math skills when compared with workers from other countries. I quite agree that, as Baker mentions, carpenters and plumbers probably do not need Algebra II. However, I would venture to say that the executives who are the bosses of these carpenters and plumbers most likely have gone college and therefore through Algebra II in high school.

Baker’s solution is to “… create 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… Make it a required course…Then turn the rest of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry into elective courses, just as music and art and biology are. Pay math teachers better and — this is important — stop requiring Algebra II for admission to college.”

I have no quarrel with paying math teachers better. However, where is that line between required and elective? Shakespeare’s English is difficult to read (and sometimes understand) by today’s readers. Would Mr. Baker make Shakespeare elective?

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2 responses to “Nicholson Baker, Algebra II, Lurking Variables and Making Shakespeare Elective

  1. This gets to a question of a cultural canon. Does Hamlet belong? Does the graph of a cosine function belong? Do Newton’s Laws of Motion belong? I would love for these conversations to start at this level, then work down to the details.

  2. I do agree – we could teach a perfectly good and useful geometry course w/o teaching proofs. But we do believe that proofs strengthen logical thinking and we do act on that belief. Of course we have never done a randomized, controlled study to prove this …;)

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