Loyola University Chicago

Mathematics and Statistics


Pop Quiz: Is Algebra Necessary?

Pop Quiz: Is Algebra Necessary?

Recently, Andrew Hacker (New York Times) raised quite a stir among mathematicians and scientists when he proposed a radical change to the structure of high school and college education: stop forcing students to learn math!

I hope you won't find any faculty on staff at Loyola who feel this way, but just in case you do, here are a number of compelling responses that you may use as ammunition:


Many people fail math, but that is far from the only subject that many people fail. The answer is not to stop teaching algebra, but, really, to stop teaching. Physical education? Most of us will never leave our chairs. We ought to be learning relevant things, such as how to fart silently in an office that you share with just one other person.

  • Music? Even actual multiplatinum artists don’t know how to make music. Learn to sing? Figure out what those little doodly lines are supposed to indicate? All you need is Autotune, and you’re good to go.
  • Geography? Please. To know where Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan-stan is located is practically a political liability.
  • History? The more facts you actually know off the top of your head, the more the people around you suspect that you do not know how to work your iPhone. 

Alexandra Petri (Washington Post)


The answer to the recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times entitled "Is Algebra Necessary?" is resoundingly, YES! Without algebra, students are excluded from a whole range of careers and interest. The entire edifice of science and technology rests upon an understanding of basic algebra; especially those who work in STEM disciplines need a facility with algebra. Our discussions should be focused on how to enable many more students to understand, appreciate, and use mathematics.

Eric Friedlander (President of the AMS)


Algebra is not just the language of mathematical elites, it is one of the cornerstones by which we have emerged from a peasant society, ruled by the small elites sometimes capable of abstract thought, to become a complex, vibrant democracy. Algebra has helped us to rise beyond the simple understanding of immediate, tangible experiences and frame questions and look for the essential data that will give us deeper understanding. Only authoritarian and reactionary politicians benefit from a population for whom abstractions have no meaning.

Nicholas Warner (USC Physicist)


Dear educators, [...] please don’t give up on us. Not yet. We need algebra, whether we realize it or not, regardless of whether we use it on the job or not. Help us appreciate that there is more to education than mere job training, and that “culture” doesn’t just encompass art, literature, music, history and philosophy; it also includes math and science. Don’t let us get away with doing just enough to get by, of being less than our best. Make us realize that just because something is hard, and doesn’t come easily, that’s no reason just to give up and stop trying. [...] Make us do the math. Some day, we’ll thank you.

Jennifer Ouellette (Scientific American)