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Village Idiot: Algebra comes in handy for generations

Pop quiz: How often do you use algebra, trigonometry and calculus as an adult? Most of us would say “never”! The folks who do use advanced math would say that without it, you wouldn’t have cellphones and Wi-Fi and TV and weather satellites and GPS and Google and nuclear power and a gazillion other things that make modern life worth living. And for a change, both camps would be right.

Most people don’t need to know advanced math, and the people that do have changed the world. Should every person who uses a smartphone also know how to design one? (Most of my friends can’t even use one. “Who wants a phone that’s smarter than I am?” one golf partner asked me.) Trying to teach every high school student advanced math is like saying every high school student should learn how to play piano concertos. While that may be a beautiful and worthwhile goal for an individual, it’s a silly one for society at large. Some people have no talent and no desire. Some have both, but will never be very good. Some will just enjoy it. A very, very few will be very, very good. Mozart was playing and composing at 6 years old. Gee, how did he do that without going to high school? And if he had gone, would it have made him better or would it have bored him to tears? Would he have become a disciplinary problem?

So, why are we wasting our time teaching advanced math to everyone instead of just those who need it or want it? Because of the long-dead Space Race. OMG, the Russians launched Sputnik! The Space Race was on; let’s improve those math scores. Anybody look at NASA’s budget recently? The Space Race is over. The Russians are now our frenemies, so we’ll just pay them to send our guys to space.

Just like the Pentagon is always fighting the last war, the education industry is always teaching the last lesson. In this case, that’s the Space Race. Hurry! We need more engineers for Apple and Microsoft! And that is true; they’re hiring all the foreign engineers they can get visas for. But guess what. Apple has $140 billion in cash on hand. If they want more engineers, let them pay to train them. And Facebook and Microsoft and all the rest. I would say the same thing to the NBA and the NFL. At least baseball pays for its farm teams. Our high schools and colleges are the NBA and NFL’s farm teams, so they should pay the bills.

Now, here’s the irony. What do almost all students, and a lot of teachers, do all day long and in their spare time? They use apps on their smartphones and tablets. They go to web pages. They buy things online and talk to their friends online. Is the federal government demanding that high schools teach all kids how to design and make an app? Does it demand teaching them how to write HTML code to create web pages? This is not math-heavy learning. It’s about as difficult as learning how to get to the next level of one of the sophisticated computer games they play endlessly. No trig, no calculus, no algebra needed.

I just bought a highly reviewed utility app for my computer. It was designed to do a simple repetitive task automatically to save me a ton of time. When I went to download it for free, it said this program was designed by a 15-year-old kid in New Zealand, and did I want to send him a contribution for the effort? I sure did. Of course, it could have really been designed by a 45-year-old guy in Brooklyn who knew he’d get more money posing as 15-year-old. But it works, so who cares?

What is your 15-year-old doing right now? Studying computer programming, or doing the algebra homework he won’t remember five years from now? Is your high schooler playing computer games, or designing them?

Contact Jim Mullen at


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