I am haunted by Gabriela Ocampo.Now, I sympathize with Gabriela, too. Frankly, I think it's awful that a school in America's wealthiest state can't run an educational system. Because that's the problem here - not that some kids won't ever get Algebra, but that some kids need a lot of help to get algebra, and can't get it at the LA school that Gabriela went to.
Last year, she 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. So, according to the Los Angeles Times, she "gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School."...
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. In due course, this came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever took.
Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra.
It's a lot easier, and a lot less demanding for us as a society, to pretend that some kids just aren't worth the effort. But I find it difficult to believe that kids in grades 7 and 8 can understand algebra (which I've seen happen) but that a kid can't get it by the end of grade 12.
But let's move on to the real crap in Cohen's article:
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.Boy, that's surprising. A journalist favours linguistic skills over math. Plus, notice the smug sense of superiority to the poor girl who couldn't locate the Sahara. See, in Cohen's world, algebra is for people with too much time on their hands, but knowing the location of the Sahara is a critical life skill.
But I'd like to address Cohen's big assertion - that writing is the "highest form of reasoning." Now, I like to write, and I'd like to think I've got some game when it comes to penning a nice sentence or two. But the best written essay - with all the evidence and reason the human mind can marshal - can never surpass the elegance of 2+2=4. We who craft sentences and paragraphs like to think we can win an argument by the force of pure logic, but compared to the mathematician, we're pikers.
This is undoubtedly part of Cohen's problem, but I think there's something specifc to math that is so offensive to Cohen as a journalist: In mathematics, a statement is true or false, right or wrong. When someone says 2+2=5, they don't deserve "balance" or "an objective treatment". They deserve ridicule, and nothing else. What offends Cohen as a journalist is the presumption of someone to claim to "know" something, without any qualification.
And that says more about the problems in journalism today than anything else.
For the record, my father (himself a journalist) never demanded that I achieve excellence in math, but did say I needed to have a basic understanding of mathematical concepts. I had to be numerate, but not a mathematician. That distinction - between being good at math, and understanding math - is something Cohen wouldn't understand. It has, however, made a huge difference to me.