Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Math Is Hard

Richard Cohen, leftist columnist, gives us a wonderful essay about how math is hard, and it just isn't worth the effort to learn. Even if your mean poopy head school won't let you graduate unless you learn algebra.

There are lots of responses to this in the blogosphere. Here are my thoughts -- the thoughts of a math major and a lawyer.

High School Diplomas:

I guess what Cohen's article is really about is the state's power to place a minimum meaning to its public school diplomas. Can't our society require people to meet any standards before we just give them stuff?

A high school diploma is supposed to mean something. Reality is that it doesn't mean much, when given by a government high school unless it is a district with different levels of diplomas. Still, when your Dad was a kid, it meant as much as a college diploma does today. School used to have tests before you could graduate. If students had to learn as much in high school today as they did 75 years ago, it still might mean something.

They don't have to know history or biology or science. Just basic reading and math.

I can't imagine a high school graduate not knowing basic algebra. I can't imagine our society being OK handing out diplomas to kids as if they had proved they knew something when they didn't and don't.

The Merits of His Argument:

As for "do I use algebra" the answer is yes, all the time. Every now I then, I notice it when I do, but it is difficult on the spot. Still, here are a few examples of algebra or at least the same thinking skills.

When I buy shelves for the garage from Ikea, I figure out the length I have, the length of the shelves, and a variable. "In 15 feet of wall space, how many 18 inch shelves can I put in, assuming the corner piece comes out 16 inches from the corner." "I want to give a quarter a day for 365 days. How much money is that? What is left over if I just use a $100 (.25X + Y=100)." "I can buy 16 oz. of creamed corn for $1.45, or 10 oz. for $.80. I need 40 oz. for my recipe. Which cans, and how many, should I buy."

I suppose all algebra and even arithmetic can be done really slowly by just adding or subtracting. I mean, 8X10=? is the same as 8+8+8+8+8+8+8+8+8+8=?. But algebra and recognizing variables makes the world a lot easier no matter what you do.

As for Cohen, he poo-poos the idea that logical reasoning and math are related, but he proves his own point. His reasoning is awful in nearly every column he writes, including this one, and he admittedly doesn't understand math. Any question now why he writes so poorly about tax policy or social security reform? I have noted before how journalists' elementary knowledge of math would be helpful in their work.

Logical reasoning is connected because logic follows from mathematical rules that start in algebra. He says "writing is the highest form of reasoning" or something like that, and math wizzes can't write. What hogwash. The LSAT, the test to get into law school, has four parts: logical reasoning, reading comp, short arguments and a writing portion.

The highest LSAT scores come from the following majors: (1) Math/Physics; (2) Philosphy/Religion (philosphy typically teaches logic rules that are based in algebra and other math concepts and rules); and (3) Economics (similarly, teaches logic reasoning and uses a lot of algebra and calc). Source.

Better arguments than mine are all over the web today. I found this one and liked it. I don't know a thing about this site - my first read - though the profanity in the title was unnecessary, is pretty good.

I suppose we could just give them diplomas when they turned 18, but then the mean poopy head state would probably require that they show a picture ID to get their diploma, and that would be intimidating and become a civil rights lawsuit, too.

UPDATE: Brad unrepentantly adds to my argument.


At 10:46 PM, Blogger Pile OnĀ® said...

I bet Cohen likes Soccer.

Not a lot of math involved in those scores, none of that fancy multiplying by 2 or 3 or heaven forbid...7.

At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Brad Warbiany said...

This is why blogging has become such a great medium. Blogging is largely engaged in by amateurs, who have separate day jobs in the real world. I'm an engineer, not a writer. So many of the milbloggers are soldiers, not writers. Quite a few lawyers, a scientist here or there, and countless other professions are represented. We were trained to do something that requires us to be right, not just sound right. Professional journalists don't need to worry about that. Too often, the only people that call out political columnists for being wrong are the political columnists on the other side. And since they were never trained in logic, or trained in analytical thought, they do a wonderful job at sounding right, but that's just not enough.

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house." -Robert Heinlein

So there you have it. Cohen is a tolerable subhuman. Works for me.

-"Don Brouhaha"


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