I enjoy reading Ms. Brown’s biweekly column “The Homefront” but was saddened last week by the cheap shots she aimed toward the study of algebra. (When you’re through learning, you’re through.) Algebra equations that model burning candles, lumens and flames in outer space are very much valued by those who take the study of mathematics seriously. And it is true that they work very hard to learn them. Galileo is credited with this quotation: “The universe is a grand book which cannot be understood until one first comprehends its language. It is written in the language of mathematics.” What could be more important to a person’s education than the language which opens the universe to that person?
As an algebra teacher, I’d often point out how normal it is for teenagers to chuck soiled clothes toward a hamper (or just let them fall to the floor). But who wants to be just normal? It’s special when you have the power to analyze the motion of that projectile using a quadratic function. Or even just be aware of the relationship of upward velocity, time, horizontal distance and gravity.
I could argue that as a normal person, I don’t use "Beowulf" or "The Great Gatsby" in everyday settings. But I think that would be incorrect. Studying great literature has no doubt affected my perspective on human nature, morality, ethics and values, just as studying the principles and properties of mathematics has equipped me with critical skills to solve problems, think abstractly and see patterns and connections among the various sciences and social sciences.
The greatest thrill of my teaching career was to watch calculus students light up with excitement as they solved very difficult problems, confident that many doors would be open to them because they had paid the high price of mastering the language of mathematics.