Lazy Algebra Students

July 6, 2008

by Tammy Drennan


A recent post has generated some heated discussion both here and on the Free Republic blog site on the topic of what students should have to learn, like it or not.


The winner is algebra. In all fairness, though, we really didn’t test any other subjects, but my suspicion is that if I had excused students from mastering the intricacies of poetry or British literature or even physics, I would not have met with such vehemence.


I was discussing this with my oldest (grown) son yesterday and he suggested that since so many people struggle with algebra they like the idea of using it to “stick it to” the younger generation. A sort of “I suffered so you will, too” thing.


Maybe. But let’s play common sense rather than psychology here.


The original context for my suggestion that a student should be allowed to pursue a passion, even to the exclusion of certain subjects that public schools consider essential to the education experience, was the idea that we need to redefine education.


For instance, instead of a couple of years of algebra, students might be exposed to a survey course of only a few weeks or even one semester. This would give them a taste for the subject and would focus on the more useful and fascinating aspects of it and help them see if they want to pursue it. It would also familiarize them with all the basic concepts and put them in a good position to pick it up later should it prove necessary to some other pursuit.


Obviously this approach is not very suited to a government institution setting, but it could work out great in a private or home setting, which is what we’re talking about and advocating anyway.


You see, in a private or home situation a teacher or mentor or parent would be encouraging and enabling students to throw themselves into excelling at the things they love, be that music, sports, writing, history, technology, mathematics, science, whatever. If a student studying history stumbled upon a need to understand algebra, the resources and help to do it would be available, and more important, the motivation would be present.


By way of example, my son is in the process of writing a creative history of the world. History is a specialty of his. But science is not and the theory of relativity especially is not. Yet he needed to understand Einstein’s famous hypothesis enough to be able to express it in terms suitable to his project. He spent two intense days studying and getting his brain around the topic and came up with a delightful summary for his book. Motivation is a real brain booster (science and research have proved it, but the schools still aren’t buying it).


In my original post that set off the furor over student discipline, I commented that what education looks like now is an artificial construct – something made up by activists, bureaucrats, textbook companies, and a bunch of control-freaks, some well-intentioned, some not.

Real education, to paraphrase John Gatto, looks like billions of different things because there are billions of people.


But we’ve been shot through and through with the fear of Horace Mann, et al. Everyone must look alike. All brains must scan the same. What on earth will happen without common knowledge and culture?


It’s a ridiculous concern, of course. For thousands of years before state institutional schooling, human beings have come together with common — and complementary — interests, goals and skills. There was never the need for certain more enlightened individuals to come up with a plan for human knowledge and force it down everyone else’s throats.


As a matter of fact, there’s ample evidence that modern mass schooling has done considerable harm to children, families, society, cultural literacy, academic literacy, morality and ethics, and the cause of freedom (and that’s the short list).


Human beings naturally seek out knowledge and improvement. To be sure, we’re not perfect. There are plenty who would happily live off the labor of others (more now than ever, since we’ve had 160 years of mass state schooling). But as a whole, given the right conditions (liberty), society works to improve without the interference of the state.


1700s America (over 100 years before the advent of mass state schooling) is a prime example. The books, newspapers and pamphlets that common men read, discussed and debated would be considered very challenging reading for the average person today. Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac sold 10,000 copies its first year – and 10,000 copies a year for 25 years after that. Franklin’s subscription library was deemed such a good idea that soon the book collections were common throughout the colonies. (And, of course, Franklin attended school for only two years after he was already a prolific reader, yet became a world-renowned statesman, writer and scientist.)


In 1776, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense became an instant bestseller. The city in which it was printed – Philadelphia – had 27 printing presses, six newspapers and 30 bookshops serving a mere 30,000 residents. Common Sense went through multiple printings due to high demand (including quite a few illegal ones – it was that profitable). It was estimated that there was one copy for every inhabitant of America. Not even the Harry Potter books have managed that.


Obviously, literacy was on the move and cultural literacy was a human given (as it is where not suppressed or artificially manipulated).


So, speaking of common sense, we have a whole history that stands witness to the power of liberty to improve the human condition. We also have a partial history, from the mid 1800s to the present, that stands witness to the power of the state to destroy human improvement.


Fortunately, human beings are not so easily subdued. We’d be a lot worse off now if not for our early history of fighting for freedom and resisting state encroachment. Remnants of that history play in our minds and tug at our hearts. We hear it among ourselves, even as schools twist it or ignore it altogether. It calls to us – and many have answered. Many more will, because we know it works.


Freedom works. We just have to relearn what it is. There are lots of people out there working to that end. This blog is one effort. Your efforts will make a difference. Spread freedom.


P.S. Because I know it will come up, let’s briefly address the issue of young children and their education. Should elementary aged children be required to learn certain things – reading, the basics of math, etc.? My personal opinion is that during this flexible and receptive stage of their lives, children should be taught to read and to master the basics of arithmetic. They should also be exposed to lots of other things through reading and being read to, hearing adults discuss serious things, etc. We cannot equate all phases of life – what applies to one does not apply to another (that’s why adults don’t go around saying “I read at a 35-year-old level”). That said, the worst possible teacher for our children is the state, which not only forces conformity and robs children of rich and varied experiences, but botches the job of teaching reading and math to a horrifying degree. So, it’s in the hands of parents, where it belongs. They may choose to do it themselves or they may choose proxies, but it should be their decision. Are some weakly qualified to make that choice – or even unable? Sure – just like many schools. That’s where the brilliance of a free society comes in. People want to help; they rise to the occasion. They did it in early America, providing for the education of poor children, and they’re doing it today. They’ll do it even more once we release ourselves from the bondage of the state.


Recommended Reading


The Real Benjamin Franklin by Andrew M. Allison, Cleon Skousen and M. Richard Maxfield


46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence by Scott Liell


Public School Citizens: Perish the Thought