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In Defense of Algebra and Other Difficult Subjects

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Last week a political science professor named Andrew Hacker published an article in the New York Times: "Is Algebra Necessary?" The title alone triggered my math phobia. Math is right up there with my fear of swimming. (More on my atatiophobia another time.)

In my unscientific poll, my math anxiety is pretty typical for a woman my age. The thought of a quadratic equation -- whatever that is -- sends me into a panic. It's tempting to agree with Hacker to skip the whole ordeal and just concentrate on the subjects I'm good at.

I don't doubt Hacker's statistics that six million high school students and two million college freshmen are suffering under the weight of solving a simple equation like 5x + 2 = 3x + 10. But the truth is a high school graduate should be able to come up with four as the answer. I almost believed Hacker's argument when he asserted, "making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we're actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources."

But then I realized that he is, in fact, asking students to sidestep subjects that are difficult for them. Isn't the point of being a student to challenge oneself? I ought to know. Writers are perpetual students. There's no way around the fact that you have to put in the hours researching, writing and rewriting. Having said all of this, I've never met a writer who didn't think writing was the hardest undertaking in the world. I had a teacher who told me that he psyched himself up in front of the blank computer screen with these words: Down, Down, In.

To make it to the desk is the first of many small victories. Then it's time to confront the equation that has to be solved, the Latin paragraph that has to be translated, the essay to say what you intend to communicate. These intellectual conundrums don't simply loom large, they haunt one. You have to do this work because it matters. Hacker, on the other hand, reinforces the ultimate phobic behavior in education: avoidance.

Down, down, in. That's how you'll find your subject, gather your emotional strength and cultivate your creativity. Lightning bolt inspiration is as rare as getting struck by actual lightning.

I had a geometry teacher who was downright abusive. She assigned an open-ended art project that was supposed to incorporate principles of geometry. For the record, I am totally opposed to art projects after nursery school. My geometry project was a dismal failure. I cut out circles, squares and other shapes and tried to calculate the areas. She took me down in front of the whole class, pointing out I hadn't done the project at all. She offered no guidance on how I might fix my project, just withering criticism. Consequently, I break out into hives when I hear the word geometry.

But in my gut, I know that math is important in our increasingly tech-savvy world. I've made sure that my daughter knows that she can solve a quadratic equation as well as any boy in her class. Hacker points out that only 9% of men and 4% of women score over 700 on the math portion of the SAT. I'm not worried about that statistic's discrepancy between girls and boys. I'm astounded by our country's math illiteracy.

Math students, particularly girls, need both mentors and teachers to excel in the subject. In an article recently published in The American Scholar by Paula Marantz Cohen, an English professor, she points out the subtle but crucial differences between mentors and teachers. "A teacher," she writes, "has greater knowledge than a student; a mentor has greater perspective." Marantz Cohen is talking about the editor-writer relationship, but I think a similar relationship is very beneficial for girls in math. A teacher sits down and shows a student how to solve a quadratic equation. A mentor clears away the cobwebs of doubt for a student so that the learning can begin in earnest.

In our house Ken and I take on the roles of teacher and mentor. As mentor, trying to expand my reach beyond that of cheerleader. After I read Hacker's essay, I was spurred on to demystify algebra and asked Ken to teach me how to prove the quadratic equation Hacker offered in his piece: (x² + y²)² = (x² - y²)² + (2xy)².

"Show me how to do this for our daughter," I said to my husband as I broke out in a cold sweat.

"She knows how to prove this equation."

"Please," I begged.

He proceeded to teach me a strategy called FOIL to tackle the equation. As soon as Anna heard the word in her room she called out incredulously, "Are you doing algebra?" And then she came in and showed me how to solve the problem.

The right attitude, coupled with competent teaching, means that learning algebra doesn't have to be a Sisyphean undertaking. Even for me.