My Answer to the Quora Question, “Is algebra really necessary for students who don’t want to be mathematicians?”

Of course everyone here is going to answer in the affirmative, that’s just the nature of Quora. The automatic perception of anyone who feels they should always be on the high road is that this entails supporting teaching algebra in schools.

Of course, algebra should be taught in schools, but not as a mandatory subject. Many children just don’t have the minds for it. They hate it, it’s mental torture for them, and children really, or at least ideally, shouldn’t be forced to do any kind of grueling mental labor 8 hours a day. If they should be forced to do some things, algebra certainly isn’t one of them.

If you use algebra currently – great. You’re in the minority. If you like algebra and feel that it has enhanced your life in some way – great. You’re in the minority. And no, you don’t have to algebra math to understand logic or to think rationally. I doubt it even helps, that’s kind of reaching. It would take a special mind for learning how to (e.g.) solve for X to help them become a critical thinker in areas that actually matter to them. And that special mind is probably good at critical thinking already.

And learning algebra certainly isn’t like learning Shakespeare. Shakespeare is full of passion and wisdom, math is…wholly, 100% technical and lifeless. And even if it were like learning Shakespeare, it’s fascist to force everyone to learn Shakespeare just because you think it’s virtuous.

With the amount of pressure we put on children to cram their minds full of what we think everyone should learn, our society is kind of fascist, but of course we can’t see that now because a society can never see its own pathologies, except in hindsight. (Okay, I guess that actually depends on which pathology we’re talking about. Sometimes we can see our own folly, particularly when we’re on the brink of transcending it or when the folly only afflicts a certain subset of the population.)

One could make an argument that arithmetic should definitely be taught in schools, because it’s basic to do doing many things that are necessary in society and if people weren’t mandatorily educated in certain subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic then the economy would fall apart. But there’s a line to how much math should be forced on children. Algebra is not necessary to calculate your payment at a store or restaurant, or to do your taxes, or whatever.

There may be some limited uses like calculating mortgage, but those things you actually need in life can be taught more specifically in school, and there are free mortgage calculators on the internet anyway. School should be a lot more about things people actually need in life anyway.

To go back to an earlier point, there are very different types of people in this world, and some of those types just can’t process mathematical concepts very well. It’s cruel to force them to fit a round peg into a square hole. People who aren’t like that don’t really relate and therefore have little empathy for their plight.

And no, someone not being well-suited for mathematics does not mean we need to “exercise that part of their mind, like a muscle” or to complement their weak spots. Just let them be who they are. And in this area forcing them to pass some tests isn’t going to change them anyway. If it does manage to tighten some mental muscle, it’ll only serve to tighten the specific muscle that allows them to complete the course that they totally didn’t need in the first place.

Another argument people use for teaching algebra and some other subjects in schools is that, if we don’t teach it, mankind will forget how to do it in a few generations. I think this is patently false. There is enough demand for algebra in the world that there will always be classes available for those who choose to learn it, and there will always be people who want to get into such a field to to fuel the demand.

The public-education curriculum of today is full of archaism and sickly idealism, and it’s long due for a major overhaul.

I say all this, by the way, as someone who found algebra in junior high to be a breeze, mainly slept through trigonometry in high school and got an A in the class and a 105 on the final exam, got on easy A in Geometry for Educators in community college, and who thinks math is all-around pretty neat.

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