Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Is Algebra Necessary?

     Anticipating my interest, several friends sent me links to a late-July opinion piece in The New York Times entitled "Is Algebra Necessary?" (written by an emeritus political science professor, Andrew Hacker).   I more-or-less agree with Hacker that algebra is not necessary in most daily lives or places of employment.  In fact, years ago I developed a non-algebra text, Mathematics in Daily Life,  for a course designed to satisfy a math-literacy requirement at Bloomsburg University.  On the other hand, my own fluency in the language of algebra opened doors to calculus and to physics and so many other rooms of knowledge that I have loved.
     Expressing algebraic issues in verse, we have this thoughtful poem by Jeannine Hall Gailey, Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington (home of Microsoft). 

Introduction to Algebra    by Jeannine Hall Gailey

If X = your heart, and Y = the time away, what is the distance Z you still need to travel?

Your brother used to say about your father: “If he talks for more than five minutes, he starts speaking algebra.”

If algebra is a foreign language, can you solve the country for Y?

In summer school a math teacher throws a desk at a student. If the desk weighs fifteen pounds, the teacher two hundred and ten, what is the internal pressure of a hot day trapped inside window panes and chalk lines?

Engineers and architects love it, you hear. And musicians. You think about music, about beat and count and the scrolling notes on the page. How many beats per minute of a butterfly’s breath, how many arpeggios inside your lungs? You’d like to build a house and a bridge, you imagine the coefficients arcing into place elegantly, like a circular staircase.

You love geometry, the building of triangles, the circumscribing of paths. Water to air, hand to mouth. But the alphabet has abandoned you here. These symbols cannot lead you home.

Gailey's "Introduction to Algebra" has also appeared in The Atticus Review (June 2012).  More of algebra in poetry is available in prior posts --  for example, 2 December 2010 and 7 April 2011.

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