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Math is Beautiful — Don’t Give it Up!

Lately I’ve seen a lot of blogs and articles claiming that the teaching of Algebra is holding our kids back. Many students are failing the subject and it’s often listed as the number one academic reason for high-school drop-out. Considered the gatekeeper for students’ careers, many are beginning to call for it to be removed from our curriculum. Roger C. Shank, a cognitive scientist and education reformer makes a simple argument for this in his Washington Post op-ed piece. While I agree that our educational system leaves much to be desired when it comes to truly preparing our students for the future, removing higher mathematics and related sciences from our studies will move the subjects once more into the realm of mastery and the elites, and this will significantly limit us as a society.

The study of the natural world, and mathematics, the language to describe these systems, were actually developed within the structure of mystery schools. Only those with the qualifications were allowed entry. They followed strict rules about how they lived their lives and in return worked together to solve some of the greatest mysteries of that time.The famous Greek mathematician, Pythagoras’ school is a perfect example of this. Their science was treated like a religion and entry into their cult was incredibly difficult. Their information was tightly guarded, shared only with initiates, yet all they were really doing was satisfying their curiosity. Like the research labs of our universities, these men were looking out at the world around them and studying it, learning from nature and then trying to describe it and prove it with their equations. While the rest of the world toiled with everyday living, the masters and elites understood how life really worked, how it was created and how we ourselves are a part of this greater mystery.

Mathematics is so much more than simple arithmetic. We can all agree that sixth grade math is something we use, from balancing our bank accounts to building a garden bed. But higher mathematics gives us a peek at something bigger — the construction of the universe itself. Geometry shows us the basic forms of matter. Spheres, squares, rhomboids and cones. Each of these govern how life appears in its physical shape. Understanding Pi, or 3.14159…, allows the student to begin to see that while everything has order, things are also irrational. When we open our eyes to the beauty of these shapes, we begin to appreciate life on Earth and the harmony in which matter exists.

Higher mathematics also teaches us about the unknown. Solving the quadratic equation is not something I’ve done since college, I agree. Yet learning how to take variables and solve for them, to look for data and search for balance in my equations, made me a much better software engineer. A typical software application deals with the mundane, but how you code it, how much memory it takes, the speed in which it runs, and what sort of functions you will call, are all unknowns that you must make manifest. Years studying higher level mathematics enabled me to do just that. Once you’ve studied vector spaces, everything else looks easy.

I hear you. You’re not going to be an engineer so enough of the STEM stuff. Well, there are the practicalities that go with this. Algebra I and II as well as geometry are required to get into most colleges. However, a recent study also found that algebra isn’t just for the college bound. Most careers such as an electrician, plumber or upholsterer — jobs that will pay you enough to feed your family but don’t require a college degree — still require freshman college level math skills to succeed. But that’s not reason enough to study the subject. Life itself follows patterns, it grows and replicates according to mathematical principles and knowing these patterns makes you a better citizen of Earth.

Take the pine cone, whose growth pattern follows the Fibonacci sequence. As a matter of fact, most plants do. This leads us to the Golden Mean, a proportion after which even the human body is modeled. Knowing how you’re built, how a seed germinates, how a tree grows its branches shouldn’t be left to those who are the smartest. These aren’t elite subjects, for each of us is a part of nature and has every right to learn about it. And it’s beautiful. Check out Vi Hart’s work on these subjects, Doodling in Math Class. These videos alone show how amazing math is and it’s relation to our lives.

I believe that the issue here isn’t that we can’t learn algebra and geometry, it’s that our schools have killed the curriculum. It was a gift when our country decided to teach as many as possible the subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic. There is power in all three of these skills and their study leads to a more open society. However forcing kindergarteners to read and learn their multiplication tables isn’t the solution. Five year old children weren’t admitted to Pythagoras’ school. A person had to learn to live in the world physically before they were shown the mental mysteries of the universe. As a result of pushing early academics and standardizing our teaching methods, we’ve removed the awe and wonder that is natural to the study of math and science, and now many kids are failing these very important subjects.

Rather than remove Algebra from our lives, why not change the way we teach it? Inspire children to learn about the world around them, rather than scare them into learning a subject. Show them how the pine cone grows and how the ancients used the chord functions of a circle to figure out how tall the Great Pyramid was. Without ladders and precision equipment we’re able to know these things because matter follows mathematical principles. We shouldn’t give up simply because we’ve forgotten how to teach others how to learn. It isn’t just the “smart kids” who benefit from these subjects. We all do.

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