Modesty aside, I was a damn good student in high school. I was always placed in the top group of academically oriented, high-potential, college-bound students. I was inducted into the National Honor Society in my junior year and I graduated with an overall 3.4 GPA. Not too shabby, huh?
But the truth is that my GPA would have been even higher had it not been for algebritis, a condition that stems from a dread of having to perform higher-level mathematics and is characterized by intense headaches, nausea, muscle aches, and depression.
Algebritis often results in performance anxiety or outright failure to achieve an equation. And remember, if attempting to solve an equation lasts for more than four hours, consult your math tutor immediately.
My fragile teenage self-esteem, already weakened by a mouth full of metal, a face full of acne, thick, geeky glasses, and a body that more closely resembled a stork’s than a human being’s, was further shattered by my math teachers’ failed attempts to educate me on the finer points of algebra and other forms of higher mathematics.
My grades in algebra, geometry, and calculus classes were the only blots on an otherwise sterling record of academic achievement.
Hey, I was a smart kid, right? So why could I not, no matter how hard I tried, fathom the deep, dark mysteries of algebra? The expression “solve for X” sent shivers up and down my spine.
And I really had difficulty grasping how being able to master algebraic expressions and formulas would have any value to me later in life.
But the good news is that my fear of higher mathematics is not unique. According to research at the University of Chicago, “mathematics anxiety can prompt a response in the brain similar to when a person experiences physical pain.”
Studies have found that even the “mere anticipation of doing mathematics” changes functioning in that region of the brains of people with high levels of math anxiety.
The same region of the brain also appears to register intense emotional anguish, like the feelings surrounding a bad breakup. Or failing an algebra test.
Schools are under increasing pressure to produce graduates “with high-level math skills for the growing fields of science, technology, and engineering.” But is mastery of algebra and geometry really that critical for success in the “rigors of the workforce”?
Now that I’ve reached “later in life,” I realize that, for me, anyway, algebra actually had little use in the workaday world. I was relatively successful in my five decade career, but I honestly can’t remember ever having to use ever use algebra in my working life. Between calculators, laptops, software like Excel, iPads, and even calculator apps on smartphones, I am virtually never called upon to manually “solve for X.”
Sure, I use basic arithmetic all the time, like to calculate the amount to leave as a tip for the server at a restaurant or to ensure I have sufficient funds in my bank account to pay upcoming bills. But that’s simple and highly practical arithmetic. And honestly, that’s all that most of us, except, perhaps, for rocket scientists or engineers, really need.
So my advice to those worried school officials is to chill out. Forget about force-feeding algebra to your non-mathematically inclined students. Focus your well-intentioned efforts on those with the aptitude and interest in learning higher mathematics.
For the rest of your students, teach them how to balance a checkbook, create a budget, do their taxes, calculate mortgages or rent payments, decide whether it’s better lease or purchase a car, and to figure out how truly unhealthy drinking a two liter bottle of Coca-Cola really is.
Hey, it’s only two liters. It’s not like drinking one of those huge, 16-ounce cups of soda that were banned in New York City, right?
Written for today’s one-word prompt, “educate.”