How often do you use algebra?

A friend sent me this today, reminding me that so much of enforced education is pointless.


Our history syllabus was “The Spanish Conquest of the Americas.”

Geography concentrated around the Orinoco Basin and deltas somewhere or other. We traced maps.

Nothing actually happened in chemistry lessons. Nothing went ‘bang’ or lit up in colours. Lessons consisted of trying to learn the chemical symbols for elements.

I was never able to understand what physics did.

I couldn’t sing.

I couldn’t draw, paint, sculpt or embroider.

I wasn’t any good at gym.

Maths, geometry, algebra, trigonometry were all double-Dutch.

I didn’t believe in religion.

Week after week, term after term, for 11 years I sat, with my classmates, glassy-eyed, bored, bewildered, and I was not alone. Many of us read comics on our laps while glancing at our watches every two minutes to see whether it was time for the bell that would signal escape from one set of metaphorical handcuffs so we could trundle down a corridor into another punishment block classroom. The whole thing seemed designed around control rather than personal growth and development. No talking in the dining room; no walking on the grass; no running; no hands in pockets; no taking your hat off in the street. Why? Why wasn’t it fun instead?

There were two classes that inspired me. English and French. I was good at both and would have happily studied languages all day, every day, in preference to any other subjects.

I have never since used algebra or geometry, nor have I ever needed or wanted to know about the Orinoco basin, what causes light refraction, why the Spanish needed to conquer the South American natives. I’ve never needed to balance on a narrow bar two feet off the ground, vault over a wooden horse, dangle by my heels from terrifyingly high wall bars or play a recorder. Nevertheless, all those things were compulsory.

In short, apart from English and French, the whole thing was a wicked waste of time, for which I point the finger firstly at the system, and secondly at teachers who were blatantly as disinterested as their pupils, reading in a monotone from books clearly written for the treatment of insomnia. I’ve often wondered why the system isn’t geared to let children channel their energies at an early age into those subjects that do appeal to them, in order that their education can be tailored to inspiring them so that lessons become a pleasure rather than a chore, and when they leave school, they will be equipped and motivated to follow a career.

No offence intended to those teachers I know face a difficult and often thankless task into which they put their hearts, souls, passion and many unpaid hours.  At least two of my friends are teachers and I know they love their work and imagine that a class with them is a treat for their pupils. If only they’d been around when I needed them.

I will never use algebra.


18 thoughts on “How often do you use algebra?

  1. Sorry to read your bitter comments about education Susie, I think you must have been very unlucky with schools and teachers.
    There were classes I didn’t like and classes I had no interest in but the only school periods I really felt were a waste of time were Rugby and cricket.
    I still can’t catch a ball (why would I want to?) but for most of my working life I used algebra every day!
    On a more positive note the school experiences I’m most grateful for were two successful exchange visits to France, bless my parents for scraping together the £17 each trip cost (mid 60’s).

    We are all grateful that you enjoyed your language lessons and happy that you have found an outlet for your talents 🙂

  2. Remember the bath tubs without plugs where water surged endlessly away? They must have been preparing us for French hotels….

    I was lucky…for the most part those who taught me were inspired teachers…things came to life as they talked…but maths and science never took with me until after school when the history of science opened doors that had remained closed all that time.

    I can’t see why people are expected to pass exams in a wide spread of subjects….what’s the point of it? I’d prefer it if children were allowed to study what interested them…but were expected to study rigorously.

    • I remember tepid baths in freezing, spooky bathrooms with slippery linoleum floors. The horror of it. Totally agree with you on children having to learn subjects that don’t interest them and they are unlikely to ever use. As for singing lessons – what’s the point of trying to make a tone-deaf child sing?

      I think if we had had enthusiastic teachers I may have raised more interest for their subjects; but they were almost all dull and acted is they’d sooner be doing anything but teaching us.

  3. Oddly for an atheist, I studied Religeous Knowledge up to A Level – the reason … an inspirational and masterful teacher who ‘got’ the adolescent and frankly quite challenging me and made the lessons really interesting. I have him to thank for gaining a place at Cambridge to read Philosophy which I subsequently shunned and went my own way with his blessing and for leading my father’s funeral in the most random and unique fashion. I loved English of course and languages but it was the teacher who taught me to be me who won. I am now married to an astrophycist who remains convinced that I can and I will if I want to learn the joy of maths and physics. So far I resist! Loved this piece ….

  4. In my opinion, one of the goals of education is to act as a kind of insurance policy for our future. The more knowledge you acquire and know how to practically apply that knowledge to the benefit of yourself and others, the more valuable you are to society. This translates into better and more plentiful job opportunities and higher status in your community. Furthermore, at such time that you are charged with teaching others what you know, it will be far easier and more enriching for them if you can help them explore the topics from multiple perspectives. Acquiring a broad, multi-faceted education offers you the opportunity to develop those perspectives and, thereby, better understand others and be more resourceful and self-reliant.

    You mention you have had no need for Algebra and will never use it. Have you done any retirement planning, household budgeting, saving for a down payment on a home, or saving for your children’s education? What about setting weight loss goals, adjusting a recipe to serve more guests, or figuring whether your current car with higher repair bills and maybe lower gas mileage or a new car with fewer repairs but a higher insurance rate is more economical?

    Did you have a comfortable, middle-class (or better) upbringing? If so, I’ll bet at least one or both of your parents used Algebra in their occupations. My father had an 8th grade education and used Algebra every day to maintain correct inventory levels at the warehouse where he worked for 28 years – no spreadsheets, computers or calculators. He paid off his house early, kept a very tight budget, and retired at age 52. Algebra is a bankable skill.

    If you are independently wealthy, then perhaps you don’t need to worry yourself with these applications of Algebra. Maybe you (over)pay to have other people apply Algebra to calculate these things for you. The rest of us middle class folks have to use these skills frequently, and not just on the job, but also to make sure we are planning appropriately for our futures. To say that you’ll never use Algebra is just another way of saying that you’ll just leave that to everyone else to do for you.

    • Well, thank you for your very interesting reply.

      I appreciate your reasoning, and taking the time to express it, but think I can truthfully say that over the last 55+ years since my school failed to teach me how to understand algebra, I’ve managed pretty well without it and haven’t ever had to employ anybody to work out my budgets, recipes, weight loss or anything else. 🙂

      And no, I am definitely not wealthy, independently or otherwise. Unfortunately.

      • I stumbled upon your blog as I was searching for something related to my planning my teenage daughter’s classes for her senior year.

        Your post struck a chord with me because I am imagining her posting the image at the beginning for all her friends and family to see on Facebook and Twitter, and following that up with up with a polemic against structured education sounding just like your comments.

        I do not know you personally, but figure that you are well-adjusted and successful in your career, family and personal pursuits. I can imagine my daughter pointing to you and saying, “See, Dad, this lady made it without all the education you say is so important.” For the umpteenth time.

        I think it’s easy for a reader (i.e. my daughter) to make the leap from your concerns about the rigidity of education to denouncing any non-personalized education altogether as a farce. It was that image that prompted me to respond to your post.

        I think there’s an important distinction that has been overlooked in this post. You say you will never use algebra, then cite examples in your reply illustrating how you have used, and perhaps still use Algebra, then alter the argument to state that you were never taught how to “understand” Algebra. There is a huge difference between being a functional literate in a given subject area and understanding the various abstraction layers that coalesce to form the subject.

        For example, I am a native American English speaker. In 7th grade, I had the vocabulary and grammar skills to write at a college level – pretty functionally literate. However, it wasn’t until I my third year of Spanish high school that I was introduced to the advanced nomenclature of the English language – the abstraction layer of how English is assembled. So, I could write college papers before understanding the definitions of the pluperfect and past perfect progressive tenses and the ability to describe those to someone.

        So, does school fail students for not imparting the abstract and theoretical knowledge of a subject? The fact that you can alter recipes and wrestle with all the other examples I’ve given indicates that you are a functional literate in the area of Algebra. And, to be honest, unless you are a software developer (like myself) or some other conehead science-geek type, you don’t need the conceptual frameworks surrounding Algebra to get along in your daily life. Your functional knowledge is all that’s been necessary for you.

        Aye, there’s the rub… how much SHOULD an educator teach a child? If we limit education to the practical and concrete, we may as well end formal education in the 5th grade and send our pre-adolescents to trade school. But, one overarching goal of education it to provide opportunities to reach beyond their grasp, to take a whack at understanding linguistic semantics, the Lockean proviso concept of land ownership, and the enduring importance of freedom of the press. I don’t think about these things every day, but they most certainly shape my daily life, and it behooves me as a citizen of this modern world to understand at least some of these concepts before attaining adulthood and exercising my rights such as the right to vote.

        Is it within an educator’s purview to get their students interested or exited about higher-level thinking, or is that thirst for knowledge something that one possesses either innately or not?

        That can be the topic for another blog post 🙂

  5. Thanks for another interesting comment.

    Re. your question as to whether it behoves the teacher to generate passion for a subject, or whether the student needs to have the passion, this is how I see it.

    Take history. It came close to the top of the list of subjects that bored me rigid. The teacher was a cold, hard little woman who was never known to smile. She appeared to hate her job, and her pupils. As I mentioned, our syllabus was the Spanish conquest of the Americas. (As an aside, as an English girl living in Africa, I knew nothing of English history; it was not on the syllabus.)

    I’ve just finished reading ‘Turn Right at Macchu Pichu’, which incorporates a great deal of history about the Inca empire and the Spanish destruction of it. It’s riveting, I’ve loved every word. The writing is visual, bringing the story to life.

    Contrast that with a list of dates of when the conquistadores landed and where, because that was all our history lessons comprised. (My personal handy reference acronyms when trying to remember the dry facts and distinguish between them: CAM – Cortes, Aztecs, Mexico. PIP – Pizarro, Incas, Peru.)

    Historical fiction is, together with biographies, my favourite genre, and it is only through reading it that I’ve learned anything about European history. So the passion is there, and was there, but Miss Snappy-Snarly didn’t ignite it. I don’t think she had it in her.

    The maths teacher I remember most vividly was a ginger-eyebrowed and ginger-moustached nun whose pleasure was inflicting pain and humiliation on her pupils. She excelled at that, but was sadly inept at the job she was paid to do. Unless you were mathematically gifted, maths sessions equated to fear and pain. In algebraic terminology: m = f+p. Although that probably doesn’t work if you start moving the letters around. I don’t know.

    Languages were my forte. I loved French and English lessons, they were interesting and fun, and the teachers liked me and encouraged me. My regret is that I didn’t study Latin, as I overheard somebody referring to it as a ‘dead’ language. I bless those English teachers for their encouragement; it gave me the confidence to believe in myself and to believe that I could achieve something.

    If you read Osyth’s comments above, it demonstrates that the right teacher can inspire interest in the most unlikely subject in the most unlikely pupil.

    So for my money it’s down to the teachers. Children with inherently inquiring minds will seek out knowledge. Some of us need those teachers to give us a push.

    If you would care to vote for me to make the finals of a book award, the link is in the top right of the page. 🙂

    • I see a generational difference between your experience and mine. I don’t know your age, but I think you’re maybe late 50’s to mid 60’s at the most. I am 45, a solid GenX’er as they say in the US, and my mother is (and dear father would be, if still alive) in their 80’s, growing up in the middle of the Depression.

      My dad would tell me stories of the one-room schoolhouse, heated by wood chopped by the oldest boys after school the day before, where his teacher in the middle of nowhere Vermont was charged with educating kids through the 8th grade. He made it through, if only by the sheer force of willpower to delay joining the ranks of past 14-year-olds who were essentially conscripted into working at the lumberyard or coal mine.

      His stories included getting whacked with a ruler across the knuckles if anyone talked louder than the tick-tock of the wall clock, the teacher droning facts and figures from tattered books that were shared among 3 or 4 grades, and pulling one’s own switch for the teach to punish a student who refused to loop the top and the bottom of the number “2” in writing.

      Married in the late 1950’s in Chicago, he knew he wanted a better life for his kids, and education was at the forefront of his concerns. Several co-workers had suggested Geneva, the quaint, historic Swedish-settled town at the end of the train line some 40 miles from the city. So, on his modest income as a warehouse worker and with the good fortune of a granted job transfer request, they bought the tiniest 2 bedroom post-WWII rowhouse they could afford, with a postage-stamp sized backyard. It was a cozy place, clearly planted in a less-than-desirable space in that old-money town – it’s hard to imagine what city planner approved their construction. As I advanced through school and got to know the kids on the better side of town, I was constantly reminded of the differences in our respective pedigrees.

      As an older adult, when comparing notes with others in my age group, I have come the understand that Geneva schools were undergoing a huge transformation in the 1960’s and 1970’s. By the time I entered the 6th grade, the curriculum was rich with opportunities that other school systems simply did not have. I took elective courses that interested me (Typing in 6th grade and Board Game Theory in 7th, to name a couple), enjoyed opportunities to receive college credit for some advanced courses, and had teachers who were creative in their methods of teaching dry subjects such as Geography and Economics – for example, ours was one of the first schools to participate in a regional stock picking contest.

      I came to know three teachers that were at the vanguard of this change for over 20 years and who fought to give the students these opportunities. I wish I could go back in time and interview them to reveal their secrets. Our school system was recognized (and still is) as one of the best in the state, and I think it was/is their craftiness and risk-taking that made it so.

      (Well, that was a nice stroll down memory lane. Back to reality.)

      That image you posted at the beginning is still bothering my left-brain dominant self. Since my oldest two started attending high school a few years ago, I’ve witnessed this widespread and pervasive sense of apathy and lack of interest among this generation of students. Blame it on the proliferation of drugs, the distractions of smartphones and the Internet, or whatever – I don’t think there’s a single cause.

      I now live in an area with an above-average (not stellar) school system where we can now see the vastly different educational opportunities and teacher engagement that exist, in large part due to the hard work that was put in a generation ago. Our local high school offers courses in robotics, auto repair, any of 5 different instrumental music groups, botany (with a functional and income-producing greenhouse), computer game programming, building trades, entrepreneurship, and so forth.

      But, neither of my two oldest kids have an interest in taking advantage of any of these classes. As much as I encourage them to explore during these critical formative years, they’re content with missing assignments, poor test scores, and just coasting through school. My wife and I have always had an open door to help our kids with tutoring, studying, and making smart course selections, and yet they rarely come to us for this advice.

      It almost feels like we’ve made it too easy for our kids. They can get any number of physical, instructional and environmental accommodations for whatever learning impediment du jour afflicts them. Teachers are available before school, during lunch breaks, after school, by email and the school’s online student portal. In many courses like Entrepreneurship, a student is given complete control over how to research and plan for the launch of his own business. Assignments can be turned in weeks late and given full credit. Internet Wi-Fi is open to all students with only light restrictions on what can be accessed.

      Even with all these opportunities and allowances, it seems that I could take that image above, now firmly implanted in my head, replace the word “Algebra” with pretty much any other subject my kids have taken, and they’d repost it in a second with dozens or hundreds of Likes and re-tweets a short time later.

      From my viewpoint, it seems that we’ve made so many positive steps in terms of teacher engagement, encouraging student-directed studies, offered a richness of available courses that blows away anything I had available, and yet there’s this pervasive and overarching sentiment of “school sucks and I’m not learning anything”.

      Really? What more do these amply clothed, fed, chauffeured, coddled and pampered kids want?

      At least you sucked it up and did the best with the circumstances that were given to you. So did my parents.

      I think I got lucky – I had teachers and parents who were willing to roll the dice on making education more engaging and interesting, and I think it paid off. I’ve kept in contact with many friends from high school and gone to reunions with nary a word spoken about how high school was a bad experience.

      At the risk of sounding like every other angry, balding middle-aged guy, it feels like our kids are thumbing their noses at great opportunities and setting themselves up for failure.

      You mentioned the importance of the confidence to believe in oneself and the effect that had on your education. Among the relatively fractional offerings available in your school days, you latched onto something and dove into it. In light of the dizzying array of opportunities offered to our kids today, it seems like none of them are “good enough” to build their confidence. But they sure seem “smart” and “confident” when they repost that image with the pithy one-liner to their friends.

      Perhaps this is way too much worry. The Earth will continue to turn, the sun will rise in the East and set in the West tomorrow. I just hope our kids don’t regret all the missed opportunities for personal growth that are available.

      Thanks for the continued intellectual engagement. I don’t often take part in online discussions like this, but I read this post right after discussing my daughter’s Algebra 2 grades with my wife, and that wise-crack image at the top just about sent me through the roof, and I just had to respond.

  6. I feel your frustration. As parents we understand the importance of a successful education and how it will affect our children in the future, but unfortunately their superior wisdom knows we are talking rubbish. We don’t understand them. I don’t know of any way you can break that. They will have to live with the consequences of their decisions and that’s down to them. We can only do our best, but can’t live their lives for them.

    It’s all screwed up. Those kids who have everything should have gone to schools like mine, where there were no extra-curricular activities. Nothing. No careers guidance, either. We had three choices: nurse, teacher, or secretary. Had we had the options they ignore, it would have changed our lives, and instead of waiting for the 4.00 pm bell to escape the boredom of the classroom, we’d have been fired up at the chance to do something that motivated us and opened up a world of opportunities.

    I think that social media has a lot to answer for. It’s like a drug, it’s dynamic, addictive and a whole lot more interesting than knuckling down and applying yourself to doing something that requires effort.

    Maybe too the kids look at the parlous state of our planet – growing poverty, disease, warfare, pollution, disparity,inhumanity the diminishing rights of the majority, and think “What the hell, carpe diem.”

    • I have repeatedly told my wife that being a farming family would have been the best environment for raising our kids. Everyone has many jobs to do, and each one contributes to the success of the family business and livelihood. There is a narrow window of opportunity that’s ideal for planning time and harvest time, so no procrastination. Farmer’s kids need to balance school and work from a very early age. A farmer needs to be something of Renaissance Man – shrewd in business and negotiations, able to embrace technology yet fix things with duct tape and chewing gum when needed, cautious with money and an excellent saver. Farmers seem to form tight-knit communities, willing to help on each other’s farms when one family falls on hard times.

      Granted, farming is not a panacea to fix all family and adolescent ills. But, it provides an object lesson in resourcefulness, dedication, perseverance and resilience and a framework for how to approach life as an adult that just seems lacking when talking to kids about their educational goals.

      We adopted our two older children from Guatemala as toddlers. They are now 17 and 15. (We also have an OOPS baby that is our biologically and almost 8!) From the time of their adoptions, we’ve always wanted to take them back to Guatemala to honor their birth country by giving something back and also to see what conditions are like down there that precipitated their relinquishment by their birth mothers.

      So, we took that trip and spent the majority of our time doing service work. We spent several months beforehand raising money through direct solicitations of friends and family, rummage sales, raffles to pay for bunk beds that we would deliver to families in need down there, and also gathering donations of goods such as school and orphanage supplies that could not be easily obtained down there.

      We spent 11 days down there in August, and it was the most life-changing experience I’ve ever had. All my kids were blown away by the contrasts in wealthy and poor, the Westernized capital city and the ramshackle towns spread up and down the mountainsides, and the abject poverty in which so many people live. We delivered school supplies to kids that were taught with no chalkboard, reading materials, art supplies or even running water – that last one hit home considering it was 38C when we visited. We delivered bunk beds, sheets and blankets to families whose kids slept on wooden shipping pallets, straw mats, crushed cardboard boxes or perhaps the dirt floor. We visited a village where the women carried laundry in hand, water jugs on their heads, and babies on their backs for 2 miles to wash their clothes and get fresh water for the family. (I could go on for days, but you get the point – we weren’t in Kansas and more, Dorothy.)

      For weeks after the trips, my kids all talked about what they witnessed and the idea of going on another similar service trip to help out more – we are planning another one for 2017. But, I think the trip really hit home for my 15-year-old son. He told me that he can’t pour a partial glass of water or any drink down the drain any more because it just wouldn’t feel right. He has only asked for a couple of expensive clothing items for Christmas, doesn’t complain about school or what’s served for dinner any more. I hear him say more often that he’s had a great day at school or at his part-time job. To top it off, he’s been taking his school work more seriously and planning his future courses more carefully.

      So, our objective (at least for one – I have to work a little harder on my older daughter) was met: to expose the huge advantages they have in education, charitable giving, jobs and careers, property ownership and physical health by seeing the world from the perspective of people who don’t have them.

      The #1 takeaway that I had from our trip was that, in spite of malnutrition, poverty, poor sanitation, hard physical labor every day, meager education and dim employment prospects, the people I saw and talked to who lived in those conditions still wore a smile, welcomed us into their dilapidated homes, and seemed relatively happy and content. This was true whether we brought them a donation or were just visiting their village.

      We have a wonderful picture of my less-than-surefooted 7-year-old struggling to descend a narrow and rocky footpath toward one village. Behind her is a girl about almost her height but probably 11 years old, no village adults in sight, holding my daughter’s hand for reassurance while carrying a baby slung over her back. When we returned and went through all the pictures, my wife and I asked to kids to take a hard look at the photo and think about the basic humanity depicted. Despite all the disadvantages of her life circumstances, she still saw fit to reach out to someone in need and use the skills she had, encumbered as she was with her own sibling slung on her back.

      That photo, in my opinion, should provide us all the reasons we need to do the best the we can with the opportunities we have. What did she have to give us but her experience in getting down the trail? Yet, she offered that without prompting or hesitation. It was something she had that she could give to us to help out.

      And, maybe after another trip or two and experiencing life like this, all my kids will see that they should develop their skills to the best of their abilities and partake in the abundance of opportunities that exist for us in the US so that we can experience the joy of giving to others who need our skills and knowledge, whether that’s in a job setting, volunteer work or service work in another country.

      I think the “carpe diem” kids of the world today would do well to take a look at their life situation through a lens like this and re-evaluate the importance of education – even the boring stuff – in their lives and direct the energy of their angst toward something that’s beneficial to others around them.

  7. I think your children are very, very lucky in their parents, and even if they flunk algebra you are teaching them things that really matter – compassion, generosity for those less fortunate than ourselves and open eyes onto the world beyond our doorstep.

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