Old algebra: What's in it for me?

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Column by Jim Clark

Back when I was in a college prep high school, my classes were pretty well set. The few choices I had involved which language to take (I took Spanish), or whether I would take Latin 3 or chemistry (either way, I was in trouble).
Don’t get me wrong. I had to take two years of Latin, and I think everyone should take at least one year. It is the language upon which much of our vocabulary is built, and people need to understand the background of words to become a more effective speaker of English.
My math track was pretty well set, too. It was two years of algebra, one year of plane geometry, and one semester each of trigonometry and calculus.
Those are the courses that leave me with one burning question -- why?
I did well in math, so it’s not the grades I’m complaining about.
But aside from correctly answering some questions on “Jeopardy,” I fail to see the practical uses of some of my math courses.
Years ago there was a book “All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.”
As far as math, that’s pretty close to my feelings. I use addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but not sine, tangent, pythagroean theorem (which goes back to 500 B.C.), etc.
I found this basic (so they say) definition on the Internet: The fundamental theorem of algebra states that every non-constant single-variable polynomial with complex coefficients has at least one complex root. This includes polynomials with real coefficients, since every real number is a complex number with an imaginary part equal to zero.
When’s the last time you used that in daily life?
I bring this up because there were wire stories this week describing a book that says that the mandatory teaching of algebra is unnecessary. Andrew Hacker is the author, and maybe the young people who are backing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ought to unite behind this guy, who could make their lives much easier. Hacker says one of the main reasons for a high dropout rate is that many students fail ninth grade algebra.
Of course, there is the expected hand-wringing among math teachers and especially people who back this common core nonsense. They claim that algebra is a great tool for advanced and usable math later on.
But the key word here is “mandatory.” No one is saying “just do away with algebra.” Just don’t ram it down the throats of kids who will never use it in their lives.
I know that my grandchildren have already been exposed to algebra basic theory in elementary school. That’s fine. A basic knowledge of a lot of things will help them to make a decision later on what courses they want to take. But algebra in high school should be a decision that the students and their parents make together ... not the school system that is following the dictates of Washington.
In case you’re wondering, or you’ve forgotten, one of the basic things you learn in algebra is the quadratic formula, which is as follows: x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4ac, all over 2a.
Don’t worry, I’m not that smart and my memory isn’t that good. I had to look it up.
Jim Clark is the editor of the West Marion Messenger and the South Marion Citizen.