Richard Cohen op-edded
last week at the WaPo. He writes to "Gabriela", a student
who dropped out of an LA high school "after failing algebra six times in
six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over
ever getting it." Sample "advice" from Cohen:
Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.
There's been a lot of reaction, mostly negative. An excellent place to start is (as you might expect) Joanne Jacobs; she comments: "[I]f that's the kind of reasoning taught by writing, I'll take algebra." She also has a lot of links to people doing more detailed dissections of Cohen.
But Cohen's argument isn't new, and it gives me a chance to plug one of my favorite writers on education, the late Richard Mitchell, who for years published a beautiful small newsletter called The Underground Grammarian. Almost twenty years ago, in Volume 11, Number 6, he considered the math-related comments of a Peoria superintendent of schools, Gerald Brookhart, who had displayed an attitude similar to Cohen's:
Brookhart, naturally, puts us in mind of Socrates, and the strange thing he said to Callicles, who thought himself a superior sort of person, and thus entitled to more wealth and power than he had yet acquired. "It is your neglect of geometry," said Socrates, "that leads you to want a greater share than other men." The Brookharts of this world, having never thought about it, assume that things like geometry and the multiplication table are taught in schools only out of tradition, and they are easily seduced into believing that such arts are useless to those who aren't going to make some money from them.
But in fact the mathematical arts are the best studies in which to learn certain truths that are essential to the making of wise choices. It is in mathematics that we most readily see that the permanent relationship between principle and necessity is not subject to appeal, that every particular is a local manifestation of some universal, that there is a demonstrable difference between what we believe and what we know, and that experience can never do the work of logic. It is in mathematical studies that a child (provided that there be a true teacher, and not a Brookhart) can have his first inkling of Justice and Truth, and of the immense and momentous difference between the laws and Lawfulness.
If you buy into the "job skills" model of education, Mitchell's argument will seem strange, of course. But it shows most directly just how seductively wrong Cohen's argument is. "Read the whole thing."
In fact, just about all of Richard Mitchell's published works are available
at this site; it's
one of the densest collections of wisdom you're likely to find on the
It was set up by one Mark Alexander, also an Underground
Grammarian fan, who
Dafydd at Big Lizards chronicles
the legal maneuvering behind the effort to derail the California
execution of Michael Morales. The argument is that the procedure,
involving staged injections of three chemicals, might be painful
at some point.
Dafydd (be warned) describes Morales's 1981
crime in considerable stomach-churning
detail; I think it's impossible to care one whit
about a brief owie inflicted
on Morales after reading it.
And via Hit&Run,
the LA Times reports that the "Privacy and Civil Liberties
Oversight Board", recommended by the 9/11 Commission, has yet
to meet. This isn't exactly "news": the Google reveals similar stories
in various outlets: a couple weeks ago at wired.com;
last month at
August at the WaPo; last
August at the Boston Globe;
May at the NYT (abstract only for TimesUnselected, of course).
Nice that the LA Times (and Reason) finally noticed, I guess.
And Frank J. at IMAO provides us with a "Super Happy Fun Partial
Birth Abortion FAQ!" Not for those who prefer euphemisms.