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« The sad life of the moderately gifted | Main | The cart is shaken all to pieces »


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PZ Myers

I agree that many people aren't suited for college, and it is no shame to follow a career that doesn't require a degree (my father was a diesel mechanic, and I was proud of him, so heck yeah).

But I do think we have a societal obligation to give all of our kids a good, well-rounded education in the basics, including algebra, before turning them loose to pursue happiness in their own preferred way. Gabriela was let down by the system. I don't think the answer lies in ignoring the problem and saying that arbitrary chunks of our education aren't important, as Cohen suggests.

Mr. Shakes

I think Richard Cohen may have a learning disability. Perhaps I'm being too generous, but I didn't find myself angry with what he wrote as much as sad. It quite pointedly reminded me of some of my fellow classmates I tutored in high school - defensive, dismissive, and masking one's feelings of inadequacy. Many of them just had a learning disability to work through, not an innate inability to do math.

That's not meant to serve as an excuse for what he wrote, but rather an endorsement of identifying and diagnosing learning disabilities, lest they manifest into, well, an ill-advised column like Cohen's.

Shakespeare's Sister

Oops. That was me. I forgot to change the name.


I'd also argue that Cohen doesn't recognize that he uses algebra quite often. If you've got an unknown that you can solve for using knowns, then you're using algebra.

"How long will it take me to get from Tucson to Phoenix at 60mph? Well, city center to city center is 120 miles, so T=120/60, where T = time (in hours)."

Phoenician in a time of Romans

WTF? Algebra is the basic tool necessary to use spreadsheets.

Calculus - now *there's* something that turned out to be totally useless to me after I stopped having to analyse algorithms...

Night Bird

Oh, I love Math...I really do. My kids look at me like I am nuts but statistics and Calculus were favorite subjects.


How does this event< sound to you???


I agree with the Phoenecian... having taken math all through high school and a little in college, I use algebra and geometry all the time, but could not tell you the last time I used Calculus other than to answer a crossword puzzle.

Allan Connery

Some advice for Richard Cohen, courtesy of Samuel Johnson: "Five hours of the four-and-tweny unemployed are enough for a man to go mad in; so I would advise you, Sir, to study algebra. ... Your head would get less muddy, and you will leave off tormenting your neighbours about paper and packthread, while we all live together in a world that is bursting with sin and sorrow."

Sometimes it seems to me (and I have an inside view of the situation) that journalism is a refuge for the numerically incompetent.

As Mark Twain said, "I am not the editor of a newspaper and I shall always try to do right and be good so that God will not make me one."

However, if I were the editor of a newspaper, I'd be looking to hire people who'd taken at least a freshman course in statistics and probability theory. Moreover, I'd be looking for the ones who'd taken the course seriously – not merely as a requirement to be fulfilled, but as an augmentation of their powers.

If there were enough people like that in the news business, we'd see fewer scare-of-the-week stories based on three-rat experiments.

There are already enough journalists who can perform as stenographers to the powerful. Now we need journalists who've studied some algebra – not to mention history, science, economics, finance and accounting, among other things.

And I mean people who've studied these subjects, not merely completed the required work in watered-down introductory courses.

Why so much education for a minor calling? Journalists profess to help us understand the world, so it would be useful for them to understand it themselves, however imperfectly.

Instead we have Richard Cohen, satisfied with his understanding of our highly abstract and numerical civilization, even though he has no algebra. Jesus wept.

Phoenician in a time of Romans

However, if I were the editor of a newspaper, I'd be looking to hire people who'd taken at least a freshman course in statistics and probability theory. Moreover, I'd be looking for the ones who'd taken the course seriously – not merely as a requirement to be fulfilled, but as an augmentation of their powers.

If there were enough people like that in the news business, we'd see fewer scare-of-the-week stories based on three-rat experiments.

God, yes.

I won't tell you how many times I've been in gun arguments, bought up the far higher rate of firearm homicide in the States compared to other countries, and had someone reply "Oh, that's due to the [BLACKS BLACKS BLACKS POOR]. If you take them out, us normal [WHITE WHITE WHITE MIDDLECLASS] people have the same level of homicides."

Blacks make up 12% of the population. The US firearm homicide rate is 3 times that of Canada, 5 times that of Australia or New Zealand. And yet they never twig to what those numbers imply, but just keep spouting the same nonsense...

Temple Stark

Cohen seems most guilty of not writing a very clear column, not quite knowing the point he was trying to make and writing on a wing and a prayer hpping to find a point as he went.

I am also against the idea of a billion and one critics assailing the guy without asking what he meant.

I know it will happen, PZ Myers did it particularly well, but most critics seemto just want to enjoy the opportunity to assail as stupid, major publication columnists as a breed.

The rule always applies - put yourself in their shoes first.

Temple Stark

And I did want to mention but forgot - great headline

Porlock Junior

There's merit in what Temple Stark says; jumping on someone immediately is not generally the best approach to making things better. But the argument has to clear a thumping great hurdle right off the starting blocks:

He didn't make himself clear? Exactly what is it that he's paid to do? He was, at least for a moment, being quite incompetent at his job. In that job, a failure in performance is humiliatingly public; this obliges us to make some balance between "that's what he signed up for" and compassion for an erring fellow being.

All together now: if an engineer messes up his math the way this guy messed up his writing, a bridge falls down. There. That feels much better.

But dammit, he was asking for it here. He could have written a consoling and honest essay about the fact that you can live a useful, reasonably pleasant life if you are hopeless in math, because there are many other things to do; so go and be good at those. What he did write was, in considerable part, an attack on the people who can do the things he can't do, who are a bunch of bumbling illiterates who are inept at the important things in life. And probably smell bad.

And, as Myers pointed out in the first place,
that's not only a foolish position, it's a lie. If he and the young lady have not met people who can do math and write an excellent paragraph, then their contacts have been pathetically restricted. Get out more, sir. It's good for you; especially if you're a journalist.

Jim McCulloch

Perhaps we are being too ungenerous to Cohen. I read his column, briefly, as it deserved, and the point I was left with was that mathematics, as taught, blights young people's lives. This is in fact true. A similar and equally true point has often been made, usually by English majors, about the reading and writing component of miseducation, and without the same outraged response by churlish bloggers. Give the guy a break.

harry near indy

lance, the purpose of education is not to make a good living.

the purpose of education is to live a good life.

i used to work as a newspaper reporter. i left that field.

crap like cohen's make me gladder that i left that field, because i don't want to say i'm in the same business as him.


A purely vocational educational system would require much, much MORE math rather than less. Indeed, the only two subjects for the littler kids (pre-high school) would probably be:

a. reading manuals and business communications
b. intense focus on math and basic technologies

(beyond brainwashing the kids not to come to work stoned, high or drunk).

Besides, of course, as others have mentioned, that spreadsheets (which basically everybody in corporate America stares at all day long) are.............simply algebra engines.


Writing is a higher form of reasoning than algebra?

More from Samuel Johnson: "Sir, a man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it."

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