to hate or not to hate

There are those parties, where you are asked in the very first minutes of a small talk, what you do in your life. And if your answer is “I am a mathematician” then the reaction is usually rather passionate. Either you found some kind of soul mate, someone who understands or – and that happens very often – you are confronted with sentences like: “Ohh – really — I always hated math – I always had problems with the math!”. Now replace “math” with “law” in the last two sentences and look what you get….—OK -put that ittle joke aside- instead of lawyer, plug in: social worker, english teacher, baseball trainer etc. You will rather rarely hear: I was always hated social sciences, english, sport etc. , whereas for math (and physics) it is the generic situation. This is because in nowadays (western?) society it is too often a good thing to dislike math.
If you are on a party it is easy to deal with that disdain – either you stick to the math lovers or you take your revenge by “Oh you just had bad teachers – let me explain the addition theorem of trigonometric functions!” :O (yes this is a nerd joke — happened out of desperation :))

However if the open dislike of math is expressed by a public person like a politician or a journalist than this isn’t fun anymore, because it involves the development of a public opinion about an issue.

What do I mean with that? It is always hard to find the right quotes on the spot in order to illustrate this public disdain of math – usually you hear them and better forget them.

However this time I stumbled (via the blog of a what seems to be a science grad student) over a column in the Washington Post, which exemplifies that what I mean very drastically.

A column in a newspaper is often intended to bring provocative issues on the table, so sometimes the issue is exagerated, funny, sarcastic etc. However the column “What Is the Value of Algebra?” by Richard Cohen from last february seems to be meant seriously. I am not totally sure about this, but alone the ambiguity that it may be taken seriously is enough. In addition it is a column in one of the leading newspapers in the US – so it better should be taking seriously in the formation of a public opinion.

In his column Richard Cohen was haunted by a Gabriella Ocampo who “dropped out of the 12th grade at Birmingham High School in Los Angeles after failing algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it.” In his column Richard Cohen explains among others:

I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time — the only proof I’ve ever seen of divine intervention — somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again. I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry while I busied myself learning how to type.

It is unclear to me how a journalist of the Washington Post can interprete political data without knowing “how to do percentages”. What does he think when he is reading something like e.g. this: “International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS)”???

Even more sad is the fact that he seems to think that there is no big difference between REASONING and KNOWLEDGE:

Gabriela, sooner or later someone’s going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.

However this is what good math education is all about:

    it is not important to learn many facts in math, because the important thing is to learn: HOW to ANALYSE and DEDUCE from facts. And where to find the facts.

And algebra is indeed furthering the learning of reasoning. Any person with an average intelligence can understand the basics of algebra. If Gabriella Ocampo failed seven times then the reasons for this are defnitely worth to find. It was not algebra which made this happen.

And last not least: it is definitely more important to understand the concept of percentages than to know where the Sahara or the desert Gobi is, Mr. Cohen. Especially for real life in the US.

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