The Algebra Argument

School must be starting soon, because talk of the importance of Algebra is once again deemed a topic worthy of discussion.

A few days ago someone on Facebook posted a quote on their timeline that went something like “Another day over, and I didn’t use Algebra once.”   It was meant to be funny and most people took it that way.   Then someone commented and said – again I am paraphrasing – “Actually you use Algebra in life all the time.  You probably just aren’t aware of it.”

I thought about that a lot.   The more I thought about it, the more I realized that such a comment, meant to support the compulsory teaching of Algebra, actually proves that Algebra doesn’t need to be taught at all.

Think about it.  If we are all doing Algebra every day without realizing it, doesn’t that prove that  A. we were given no correlation between solving textbook equations in class and how Algebra might manifest in our lives and B. we don’t need to know how to solve equations in a textbook in order to successfully use Algebra in our lives?

Most people I talk to say they don’t remember anything from their Algebra class.  I certainly don’t, except that Curt Aton encouraged me to go to the 9th grade prom even though I had no date, and promised to save me a dance even though he had a steady girlfriend.  I went, he did, and that is my big memory of Algebra.  (Curt and I are still friends to this day, by the way. He’s a real mensch.)

However, according to the above-mentioned FB thread, I use Algebra every day even though I would probably fail a 9th grade Algebra exam.   I am not disputing that this is true, just pointing out that if it is, I didn’t really need that class in the first place, did I?   Of course if a child wants to learn textbook style Algebra – at any age – then absolutely he or she should do it.  Hopefully in a way that reveals the practical life applications.

We are so indoctrinated into the need for certain subjects that we don’t even realize when comments we make about the status of those subjects in our lives contradicts our so-called belief in the need for them.   Even saying that today you didn’t use Algebra once, and having 90% of the people on your thread agree means you don’t think you needed to take that class.  So why make your kid do it unless they really want to?

8 comments on “The Algebra Argument

  1. Kate S says:

    Hey Amy,

    I’ve been reading your thread on and off for about a year now, and this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to comment.

    My siblings and I were secular homeschoolers. We were mostly unschooled – my brothers and I decided what to read, which museums to go to, and whether or not to learn the life cycle of a black-capped chickadee. The only compulsory subject was (you guessed it) math. At the time, I fought, was unhappy, and disliked pretty much every aspect of my Saxon Math curriculum. After graduating from being homeschooled, I spent the better part of a decade pursuing a professional ballet career.

    However, ballet lacked the intellectual stimulation and altruism I desired. So I applied to universities and am currently pursuing a degree in the sciences, with a premedical concentration. The reason I feel compelled to write to you now, is that many of my fellow students who drop out of the sciences do so because of their lack of a strong math background. Algebra is the basis for problem solving in both physics and chemistry, and I would not have passed and done well in those subjects unless I had a mother who insisted on me having a strong background in basic math and algebra.

    Algebra allowed me to choose and pursue the education and future I desire, instead of relegating me to the humanities. Without math, I would have floundered and struggled to keep up. Perhaps I would have dropped those classes altogether. Instead I found myself dusting off my knowledge, and beating the curve.

    I agree, most people don’t use algebra on a daily basis. However, isn’t it important to give each child a basic knowledge of how to read a graph, and solve for an unknown variable, in order to open doors for them in the future?

    Homeschooling parents are in the unique position to ensure their children get the math background they deserve. Even if they decide not to use it, wouldn’t it be better to give them the choice?

    • Amy says:

      Hi Kate!

      Thank you so much for the comment. Blogging is so much more rewarding when there is interaction with readers.

      Allow me to play devil’s advocate here and posit that even had you not been required to study math at home, you might still be ahead of the curve in your medical/science studies. How many of the people you mentioned – those who drop out of the sciences – took math and science classes all through high school? I would guess most of them. So why, if that is the case, do they still lack “a strong background”? Maybe what they lack is the self-motivation and the confidence that comes from a mostly self-directed education at a young age. I would be willing to be that even had you not been required to take math at home, you would still have set yourself the goal of learning what you needed in order to succeed in the course of study you chose.

      Also, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that unschooled kids don’t learn math. They certainly do, and my kids can both read graphs and figure for unknown variables. They just didn’t learn to do it through a sit-down curriculum or at my insistence. It came about through living and pursuing various interests and needing the information to achieve a goal they themselves had chosen. The things they don’t learn now? Well they have a VERY strong background in knowing how to find and learn the things they need to know, when they need to know them. Some kids are drawn to curriculum based studies, and that’s great. But saying that every kid should be forced to work their way through a Math curriculum, when learning Math can happen in so many different ways? Not necessary, in my opinion.

      Thank you again for commenting! It always helps me crystallize my thinking and I like spending time in another person’s point of view. Only good things can come of that.


  2. Maurice M says:

    I also disagree with this idea that math is unnecessary because our intuition can figure things out for us. To correctly analyze almost anything a basic knowledge of statistics and probability is necessary. In every aspect of life there are ads, news, people presenting things in a way where it is necessary to have a basic understanding of statistics and probability to truly understand them. An obvious example is the fear mongering that goes on, without understanding how to analyze it you would have to fall prey to emotion. On a more subtle level, the example that comes to mind is the statistic that is quoted over and over that college is recommended because group A that graduated college on average makes $x more in a lifetime than group B who didn’t. Without an understanding of basic statistics the true nature of the deception would go unnoticed. In the example given group A has a different distribution of people than group B, so not college alone is affecting the outcomes. If the idea of parenting is to raise children to live in this world, being able to understand basic situations that happen every day I would argue is extremely important. I doubt the poster who said math is used every day literally meant each and every person is solving for X with pen and paper every day.

    • Amy says:

      Hi Maurice!

      I absolutely agree with you. And I’m quite sure the poster did NOT mean that every person is sitting down with pen and paper every day. My point is, why do you need to sit in an Algebra class or study an Algebra curriculum to learn those things? The person I know who can figure statistics better than anyone I’ve ever met is a 10 year old boy who studies baseball for fun. The other person is my husband, who dropped out of school at age 14 and never took any math beyond the basics. Both of them are learning/learned through real world situations that then can be applied to any statistical data or ‘solving for x’.

      When I talk about the lack of the need to teach Algebra in a traditional way, I am not saying math is unimportant or unused. What I’m saying is that if we are using Algebra in our daily lives without knowing it (which I take to mean that we are not thinking “Oh that thing I just did? That comes from Algebra!”. We are not labeling it), then there must be a way of learning it that does not require a sit down curriculum. Most of us don’t remember our pen and paper equations – we had to relearn the math we are using as adults when the need arose; probably without identifying it as Algebra, per se. We are using it because it is important to something we are doing. It’s the same for unschooled kids.

      I hope this clarifies what I was saying. Thanks so much for commenting!


  3. Maurice M says:

    Algebra as taught in schools is useless, exhibited by the fact that most adults sadly don’t understand basic math and aren’t interested to learn because its “unnecessary” or “they’re not good at math”. From my own experience teachers didn’t really understand what they were teaching themselves, and were interested only in students knowing how to solve the type of pen/paper problems not real world problems. If the choice is current public school curriculum or not, I’d agree it’s not a good use of time, but that is not the choice. There is no tangible thing as “math”, it is just a different way of understanding the world. A child can be taught to view things mathematically from a very young age (in my experience 2), and this enhance his/her understanding of the world, often times sparking new interests. Not every child will have the desire to understand something like baseball statistics.

  4. joe c says:

    Learning algebra helped develop my critical thinking and problem solving abilities. Even if you forget it all, it still changes how you approach every problem in your life. I think all children should eventually learn college level algebra.

  5. Stuart says:

    Yes, you did.

    X = (the number of hours in a day)
    Y = (the number of times you think you used algebra today)
    C = (the minimum number of times I can guarantee you used algebra today)

    If X = 24, Y = 0 and C = 1, then


    24×0 = 0 + 1 = 1

    1 = (the minimum number of times I can guarantee you used algebra today)

  6. Simon Bowden says:

    Algebra is problem solving. Specific algebra is required in engineering. You wouldn’t be able to blog without algebra. Yes, maybe you don’t have to think about algebra to problem solve, but the extraordinary people that invent, create and engineer do.

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