17 February 2006

Rejoicing in Ignorance

PZ Myers already trashed this incredibly, painfully, dangerously, arrogantly stupid op-ed that appeared in the usually intelligent WaPo. PZ, as always, does a good job of informing this idiot that he is a stinky brown object floating around in the gene pool. Ordinarily, I wouldn't waste much time trying to add to what Myers wrote, but in this case I think there's something that he missed - and Cohen is just too damn stupid for me to resist commenting.

Richard Cohen wrote his article in response to an LA Times report about children dropping out of high school after repeatedly failing algebra. That is a legitimate problem, and it is one that we desparately, desparately need to address as a nation. We need to educate our children. All of them. Not just the ones who can afford to go to a private school, or the ones who are lucky enough to live in a good school district. Schools may be a local responsibility, but this has become a national problem, a national crisis, and it really is in need of a national solution.

Cohen, in his article, proposes a solution that is the intellectual equivalent of fixing an ingrown toenail by amputating the foot. His idea: if people can't pass algebra, don't make them take it.

Arithmatic - the part of math that Cohen claims to be competant at - teaches you how to answer a problem. Algebra teaches you how to set the problem up. It does, Cohen's pathetic assertions notwithstanding, teach you how to reason. In fact, it teaches you how to reason in ways that you really do use in everyday life.
Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that.
That's a word problem, and it is the kind of thing that algebra teaches you to solve. Here's another example: You're at the gas station on your way home from work. You don't have a credit card, it's three days until payday, and you know that you are going to need to put five gallons into the tank to keep the car running until then. Gas is at 2.50, and you have 15 dollars left. You also need milk. If you buy a gallon of milk, will you have enough money left for the gas you need?

Word problems suck, but you rarely run into anything else in the real world. Some people may be lucky enough that it doesn't matter too much if they miss the answer by a little bit. Cohen may have enough money to pay the landscapers no matter how many are working. Others aren't so lucky. Gabriella may need to figure out how far she can stretch that last 15 bucks.

In fact, the educational disparities in this country make it much more likely that Gabriella will find herself in just that situation. I grew up in the Bronx. We weren't as poor as others in the neighborhood, but we weren't exactly rich - we sat right on that border between working-class and middle-class. When you are coming from that kind of inner-city background, there aren't a lot of ways to do better. A fortunate few might have the athletic or musical skills that can lead to fame and fortune. The military is an option for some, but you need to get through high school before they'll take you - especially if you want training in something high-tech. You might win a lottery jackpot. Or you can get educated.

For most people, education is the only way out of poverty. Education is the only way to get a job that will pay something more than minimum wages. Education is the only viable path to a better life.

That's simple reasoning, but it apparently escapes Cohen. Of course, that's not much of a surprise. After all, he has this to say about reasoning:
Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.
Let me see if I've got that right: Writing teaches reasoning better than math. We know this because people who are good at math are bad at writing. An example of this is someone who is good at math, but doesn't know where the Sahara is. Yeah, writing has definitely taught this guy how to reason.

I'm not trying to argue that the humanities and social sciences are unimportant, or even that they are less important than math and science. They're all important. They're all part of a good education. They're all things that you need to know if you are going to succeed in our modern society.

Especially if you're not lucky enough to start out ahead.
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