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Is Algebra Useful in the Real World?

Date: 10/27/2002 at 10:59:11
From: Aimee
Subject: Algebra

Hi Dr. Math,  

This week my math class is having a court trial about why we do or do 
not need algebra. How and why do we need math in our everyday lives?

Thank you.

Date: 10/27/2002 at 12:35:29
From: Doctor Ian
Subject: Re: Algebra

Hi Aimee,

First, I'm going to look at it from the point of view of people who 
think algebra isn't important. Then I'll look at it from the point of 
view of people who think it is important. Finally, I'll look at it 
from the point of view from people who think this is a silly question.

1. "Algebra is useless in daily life."

I used algebra a lot when I worked at NASA. But how many people are 
going to navigate spacecraft, or program computers, or solve physics 
problems on a regular basis? 

Outside of work, I hardly ever use algebra, and no one else that I 
know does, either. (However, I use simple geometry pretty regularly, 
building or fixing things around the house.) 

It seems to me that making _everyone_ learn algebra because _some_ 
people will be scientists and engineers is a little like making 
_everyone_ learn to play an instrument because _some_ people will be 
professional musicians.

Here's something you might consider trying, to collect data for the 
trial: Put together a dozen fairly representative algebra questions 
into a quiz, and ask a dozen fairly successful, well-adjusted adults 
(who don't happen to be scientists or engineers) to take it, and see 
how well they do. After most (probably all) have failed miserably, 
ask yourself how they're able to get along in the world without 
really understanding this subject that everyone 'needs'. 

Does this mean that algebra isn't useful? No. In fact, it's incredibly 
useful. Just not for the kinds of things most people do, most of the 

2. "Algebra is a form of self-defense."

Of course, that's just one side of the story.  There are lots of 
people who can't read, and they manage to get along in life. Why 
should they learn to read, if they don't _need_ to?  Because it opens 
up so many more opportunities! And it makes life so much more 
enjoyable. Similarly for math (including algebra):

   Why Is Math Important? - Dr. Math archives 

But I myself feel that that the best reason for requiring people to 
learn math (including algebra) is to make it more difficult for people 
to deceive each other. For example, if you don't understand anything 
about probability and statistics, then it's easy for politicians and 
corporations to make you believe things that aren't true, in order to 
get you to do what they want you to do. And if you aren't fluent in 
arithmetic and algebra, you can't possibly understand probability and 

Think of some very young children you know, and think about how easy 
it is to lie to them, because there's so much that they don't 
understand. You can tell them anything, and if you sound sincere, they 
really have no way of knowing whether you're telling the truth or not.  
So they have no choice but to trust you. Adults who don't know 
mathematics are in the same boat, relative to people who are fluent in 

As simply as I can put it: If you don't understand math, then the 
people who do understand it will be able to jerk you around like a 

3. "The question itself is misleading."

In the end, having a 'court trial' to determine whether 'people' need 
to learn algebra is like having a court trial to choose a single 
clothing size for everyone, or to choose a single diet for everyone 
to follow. You'd really need to have a different trial for each 

The really interesting question is: Does a person living in a free 
country have the right to decide for himself, and for his children, 
what is and isn't worth learning?  (And if you don't have that right, 
to what extent do you have any rights at all?)

Another really interesting question is: How much damage have we done 
to this country by pretending that education should be a one-size-
fits-all proposition?    

_Those_ would be more suitable questions for your 'court trial'. 

I hope this helps. Write back if you'd like to talk more about this, 
or anything else. 

- Doctor Ian, The Math Forum 
Associated Topics:
High School About Math
Middle School About Math

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