Sunday, February 15, 2009

Your algebra teacher is lying to you. True story!

Published February 15, 2009
St. George Spectrum & Daily News

I’d like to address my comments today to high school and junior high school students all over Southern Utah. Gather round, my impressionable ones. I have something of great importance to tell you.

You know how your algebra teacher likes to say algebra is important to learn because you will use it extensively not only in future math classes, but in your daily life? He or she is lying. My algebra teacher, who teaches mostly 18 year old students fresh from high school, brains still bedazzled by the lies of their high school teachers, is telling her students the same thing. She’s also lying.

I know this is a serious accusation. I only make it because it’s true, and because the stakes are so high. Having lived under the delusion created by teachers I trusted, I want to free the enslaved masses in our educational institutions from the drudgery of x+2-3y=42. (Okay, I can’t really save you from algebra. I want to save you from the terrible belief that you’ll be doing this for the rest of your life. You won’t.)

I know all of this because I am not the typical, 18 year old, bedazzled student. I am a 32 year old, non-traditional student who hasn’t taken an algebra class in 15 years. If, for the past 15 years, I had been using algebra in my everyday life, I would be blowing through my algebra homework with ease, thinking, “Hey! I just did this yesterday while I was washing laundry,” or, “I’m so glad I’ve known this all along. I’d never be able to drive anywhere without it!” or, “Wow! I just used this formula last week to calculate the ratio of jazz to classical music on my iPod.”

Instead, my homework sessions are filled with frustration, tears, passionately shouted epithets, and frequent breaks for chocolate…then more tears. I represent a classic example of the maxim: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” It’s clear I’ve lost the ability to do algebra, and this can only lead to the conclusion that I never used it. And that, young people, makes liars of math teachers everywhere.

Now, I’m not personally against algebra teachers. I know they’re teaching from their own experiences. They use algebra in their daily lives, and being possessed of whatever crazy love of math led them to teach it, they probably always have. They probably also have math-lover friends working in math related fields who use algebra every day, as well. They just don’t clear the equations from their heads long enough to notice there are many more people like you and me out there.

Now that I’ve opened your eyes, I propose we start an algebra revolution. No, I’m not asking you to throw out your textbooks and refuse to turn in your homework. You can’t get out of taking algebra any more than I can. I am proposing that we share the truth with every student of algebra working hard beneath the mistaken belief that these skills will be crucial in adult life.

In your quest, you may come upon people who claim to use algebra every day, just as their math teachers said they would. I know people like that. Right now, they probably want to tell me all the ways I actually use algebra without even realizing it. Either that, or they want to tell me, in minute detail, all the ways my life would be easier if I did use algebra.

The next time I’m involved in some math-related, daily life catastrophe whose only solution involves the careful application of the principles of algebra, I’ll be sure and call those people.