Friday, February 17, 2006

Duh, I'm A Journamalist

Richard Cohen win's Atrios' coveted "Wanker of the Day" with this know-nothingness:
I am haunted by Gabriela Ocampo.

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.
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.

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.


Jason Townsend said...

Gotta go with Cohen on this one.

I understand your dislike of the piece; it's basically just an anti-math diatribe without a lot of detail as to the difficulty and content of the class the girl failed.

But I think he's getting at the truth when he holds up the "high school math teaches logic" nonsense. Any class, well taught, teaches logic, math among them. If high schools were really determined to teach logic, well then, a *formal logic* class would probably be the best way to do it; and it would be no more complex than graphing complex equations.

The fact that "math teaches logic" is an axiom I find questionable. I took honours math, and didn't do too badly, but it was mostly about learning procedures to follow, which I have long since forgotten.

It is indespensible that schools produce literate and numerate graduates; but for most people, only a modicum of numeracy is especially useful, wheras there is no limit to the value of more and more literacy. I think, to be perfectly blunt, that replacing most of math for non-sciences students with history, culture, politics, languages, or philosophy would be a major improvement.

Many high schools do eventually offer a "trucker math" basic level course for prospective arts students in grade 12; however, I'm not really sure that there is a lot that absolutely needs to get covered beyond the 11th grade; perhaps trig.

adam said...

Well, I'm not particularly good at math either. I took it to grade twelve in highschool and decided that was enough, since I was more interested in art at the time (and took a view comparable to Cohen's on the two subjects if asked to compare them).

Then, since I decided to add a computer science major at university, I had to take quite a few math courses - calculus, linear algebra, discrete mathematics courses. I scraped by in all of them, and only on my third try with discrete II, but I did it. Despite less than stellar marks, I can say I understood the reasoning behind all of it, too. I can put together an English sentence as well, locate several deserts on a world map, and draw a picture of them too.

I'd like to know what Cohen thinks he would be typing on if all of the mechanical engineers and computer scientists in the world had decided math just wasn't an important enough form of reasoning.

That said, he and the commenter above do have a point concerning algebraic reasoning being promoted in school above other forms. There was a very good article in the Walrus published last Fall some time written by a former math 'phobe turned 'phile - explaining that while algebra confused him and drove him away from math, geometry eventually brought him back. It's perfectly possible to prove many theorems entirely visually without using a single greek symbol or writing a single complex equation, and I think this is the part we forget; math is not only a powerful form of reasoning, it's also an intuitive one if done in the right form. For those of us who were or still are (and I still am) intimidated by manipulating equations algebraically, there could be a different approach to what is ultimately the same powerful topic of mathematical reasoning, one that encourages us to persue it.

Westacular said...

The fact that "math teaches logic" is an axiom I find questionable. I took honours math, and didn't do too badly, but it was mostly about learning procedures to follow, which I have long since forgotten.

I daresay the act of learning those procedures, understanding them, and using them is of great long-term benefit to your logic skills even if you forget the math itself.

What you're saying is similar to suggesting that if you learn a second language, but later forget all your vocabulary, what was the point?

The point is that a lot of very beneficial things happen in your brain just through the act of learning in the first place. You are richer for just having done it.