Students frequently question the usefulness of algebra, and express various objections to "having" to take an algebra class. But do these objections stand up under scrutiny?

"I don't need algebra, because I'm not going to college": There was a time not so long ago when children in middle schools were assigned to "tracks" according to what "everybody knew" each child would "need". (This tracking was why middle schools were invented in the first place.) Educational "experts" presumed to "know" what the various children "needed", based on culturally-based (but unjustified) presumptions. The educators then locked children into "appropriate" tracks, thereby locking many children out of college before they'd even begun high school.

It might have been assumed, for instance, that Shaniqwa would be pregnant by the time she was fourteen, Jamal would be in prison, José would grow up to be a pool-boy, and Maria would be a maid. So these students would have been assigned to something like "consumer math": low-level math that was presumed to be "useful" for "that sort". Blonde, blue-eyed Tiffany might have been expected to marry well after a short and trivial "career", so she'd have been assigned to bookkeeping. Only Eustace James Whittington III would have had any chance of attending college, so only he would have been steered into the algebra class.

I would hate to see a return to those days, and I can't understand why any student would volunteer to put himself into the position that used to be forced on many women and minorities. Even if college isn't currently in your plans, please don't under-value yourself by classifying yourself as "that sort" by thinking that you could never use algebra. Don't diminish your potential by rejecting mathematics.

"Having to take algebra is stupid": Did you ever notice that nobody asks why he "has" to take English Lit or phys-ed? But math and science are arguably much more crucial to the basis of a modern technological society than are Moby Dick or the rules to dodge-ball. So why do we only hear complaints about math and science? Perhaps because they're hard...? Because they require work and discipline...? Because they aren't always "easy"...?

Modern educationist philosophy in America seems to say that education has to be "fun" and "entertaining" to be justifiable. Today's students often absorb the ethic that, unless a thing is easy, they shouldn't have to bother. But most worthwhile things in life are going to require some effort. If you want that great job, that interesting career, that open-ended future, you're almost certainly going to need some mathematical skills. And algebra is the basis, the foundation, the tool-box, for those skills.

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