Friday, February 17, 2006

Hating on algebra

Richard Cohen sets off a vast string of comments by going on an anti-algebra screed. His basic premise, that algebra doesn't help you think straight, is defensible insofar as logical thinking is required in most any discipline and so you can learn it well by taking another discipline seriously. Yet to see logic stripped down is certainly clarifying. And algebra is not only about logic, but also about having a sense of quantities and how they fit together. This is basic to being an informed citizen and consumer of goods and information (not that I read the Post, but I'd never ever trust any commentary from Cohen on any economic topic ever again). People who claim that they've done fine in life without any mathematical knowledge are certainly not lying, but a bit of quantificational reasoning adds a richness to your understanding of the world that can only help.

Kevin Drum says that algebra is boring but it lets you do calculus, which is beautiful. I'd say that knowledge of algebra lets you do abstract algebra, which is possibly even more beautiful (though in a very different way). He also wonders if he'd trade knowledge of calculus for a working knowledge of French. Given that I can get by in French and have taken advantage of that to spend time in France and Senegal, and that I'm a math major and so sort of know calculus, I'd say that a) they aren't strictly comparable and that b) the kinds of experiences I've had based on French could be loosely approximated in English (say, England and the Gambia)*, but that knowledge of math has opened up whole areas of study -- economics, which I've taken advantage of, and, say, physics, which I haven't -- that wouldn't have been available without math knowledge. So if I had to choose just one, I'd take the math. Though I'm quite content to know both.

*Obviously the beauty of, say, Provence is unparalleled, but I could go to Provence and not speak French. The unique experience of speaking French is interacting with people with very different perspectives, something that you can come close to by finding English-speaking people from far away places (though by speaking english their perspective is closer to yours, but...).

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