Must Read #2: Is Algebra Necessary?

I will never be able to finish this translation if all these articles that need to be addressed keep cropping up. My colleagues in the science departments are in an uproar over the article titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” that appeared in the NY Times.

This is what Dr. Andrew Hacker has to say:

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

I always feel very suspicious when political scientists (like Dr. Hacker) opine on whether algebra is necessary, economists want to close down foreign languages, and professors of medicine wonder whether we can dispense with the departments of Classics.

I hope that the resident scientists of this blog weigh in on the value of this article. As a scholar of literature and one of the people Dr. Hacker wants to protect from the horrible burden of mathematical literacy, I can say that I really wish I had received a better education in mathematics than I did. I pride myself on being an independent and resourceful person, yet I’m a total damsel in distress when in comes to managing any aspect of my financial life. I pretty much have to rely on my husband who is a scientist to handle this part of my existence. I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers fiends and lovers to help me calculate my grades.

But it isn’t even the practical aspect of mathematics that I really miss. I have a strong feeling that I have lost out intellectually by not challenging the mathematical part of my brain. I believe that my mind would be better organized and that I would have found it easier to learn Latin and German if I’d had some mathematical training.

What do you think?

Must Read: The Perversion of Scholarship

I just found the following amazing quote in an article by Chris Hedges that a reader of this blog sent to me:

We must strengthen our attraction for those singular students whose greatest pleasures may come not from the camaraderie of classmates but from the lonely acts of writing poetry or mastering the cello or solving mathematical riddles or translating Catullus. We must make Dartmouth a hospitable environment for students who march “to a different drummer”—for those creative loners and daring dreamers whose commitment to the intellectual and artistic life is so compelling that they appreciate, as Prospero reminded Shakespeare’s audiences, that for certain persons a library is “dukedom large enough.”

This was said by James O. Freedman, who was, for a while, the President of Dartmouth. The creative loner he describes was the kind of student I was. I avoided sororities and student clubs like the plague because most of them seemed like a complete waste of time. My way of being makes it incomprehensible to me why people would be so desperate to belong to a group that they would consent to undergo some kind of insane hazing ritual and try to prove their worth to people they have no reason to respect. I’m also not American, so I have no idea why universities need to maintain hugely expensive sports teams and award college diplomas to failing students just because they can throw a ball.

Sometimes, it seems like people find it so hard to find any value to education and the pursuit of knowledge that they need to infest college campuses with sporting events and sociability opportunities in order to make going to college worthwhile.

The Way We Lived, Part I

Reader Kyle asks:

What did people in the USSR do for clothing? Was it supplied by the State? Did people make their own? Also, what did people eat there for the most part?

I’m always happy to blabber on about the Soviet Union, so questions are more than welcome.


There were clothing stores, of course, but everything in there was extremely ugly and uncomfortable. This is why everybody knew how to sew and knit. There was also a black market for clothes that people brought in from their trips overseas or contacts with foreign tourists. Those clothes were so horribly expensive that a regular person needed to save for years to get anything.

Another source of clothing was trips to Moscow. Since most foreign visitors ended up in Moscow, the capital was better stocked than other places in the country. This was done mostly to make a favorable impression on visitors to the country. Of course, the inhabitants of the Soviet capital believed themselves to be vastly superior (and, hence, more entitled to good things) to the inhabitants of “the provinces.” This attitude persists and creates a huge gap between people who live in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

I still remember a trip to Moscow my mother made in 1989. She needed winter boots (winters in our part of Ukraine are harsh) and had to travel all the way to Moscow to buy them. The boots ended up costing twice what my father, a PhD in linguistics made in a month. Plus there was the expense of the trip itself. The boots were very pretty, by the way, and my mother look stunning in them. But take a moment to calculate what the equivalent of their price in $USD would be and imagine how often one could enjoy such a purchase.

So here is the list of clothes I possessed in 1989-90:

  • my school uniform;
  • two sweaters that my mother knit for me;
  • a pair of pants my aunt sewed for me;
  • two summer dresses I inherited from my aunts;
  • a hand-down winter coat;
  • a hand-down Fall jacket (this piece had many generations of wear on it. When I traveled to the UK and the British people I was staying with saw this jacket, I swear I could see tears in their eyes. Of course, they gave me a new jacket instead, making me feel both grateful and embarrassed.)
  • this ugly pink house dress that I will never forget because buttons kept popping off it at the worst possible moment;
  • and the treasure of my wardrobe: a white jumper with an applique of a tennis racket that my mother bought for a humongous amount of money on the black market.

And that was it. Those were bad years for everybody (except the party apparatchiks) but please remember that I had two working parents who had higher education and only two children to feed.

What Makes a University Financially Sound?

The Chronicle of Higher Ed recently reported the results of an analysis by Bain & Company of the financial health of public and private nonprofit institutions of higher education.  The financial situation of thirty-three percent of all schools was deemed unsustainable.  Another 28 percent were ranked as being on the verge of descending into an unsustainable financial position.

My university, however, was ranked by both Bain and Moody’s as being financially sound and in the highest category of financial health. And all this happened through the heavily problematic years of the recession.

I just want to point out that a university that:

  • doesn’t adjunctify like crazy;
  • hires crowds of new talented PhDs during the recession;
  • doesn’t forget to invest in infrastructure;
  • places a high premium on research;
  • provides good working conditions, a clear road to tenure, and regular salary raises;
  • promotes constant innovation
  • creates opportunities to transform adjunct positions into tenure tracks for talented adjuncts

ends up being a picture of financial health.

So if somebody tells you that destroying tenure-track positions, bringing in crowds of adjuncts, never investing a dime in renovations of buildings, stamping out research as useless is done for the sake of an institution’s fiscal responsibility, please do me a favor and laugh in their face. This is a recipe for a debt-ridden, miserable university, not a prosperous, flourishing one.