For many decades, educators have viewed algebra as something students need to understand in high school, if not earlier. Now, we have college administrators who think it's too hard, causing too many of their students to fail and thus preventing them from getting a college degree.

And that, of course, means we should get rid of algebra, the chancellor of California's community college system told NPR this week.

Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree ? particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads.
It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you're not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?
That's the argument Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, made today in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel.

I don't even want to get into the laughable and arguably racist assumption that algebra creates some kind of color barrier ? and by the way, the Arabs developed it, so it just isn't so. But what I marvel at is how this interview seems reflects a blind faith in the magical powers of a college degree. In the interest of making sure everyone gets one, we simply stop making them studying things that are challenging and important in life, because it's the degree itself that is most important.

Ortiz Oakley talks up alternative and supposedly equally rigorous approaches to math. This sort of argument, when you hear it from educational administrators, usually entails a dramatic lowering of standards. This suspicion is confirmed by his accompanying argument that many college majors don't require algebra anyway. As his interviewer seems to imply in his final question, this does not sound like a good way to attract students to STEM fields ? it sounds like a good way of locking them out of STEM fields by depriving them of the mathematical tools they'd need to enter them.

I'm not sure I could tell you what sort of non-manual work you can do today that doesn't require, or isn't at least made easier by, a basic working knowledge of algebra. I edit and write for a living, but I find myself using it all the time. The other day, I was writing an editorial on manufacturing for "Made in America" week. I wanted to figure out how much more productive the American manufacturing worker has become since 1987. U.S. manufacturers now produce 86 percent more than they did in 1987 (in real terms), and there are about 33 percent fewer manufacturing workers. Try figuring that out without using those algebra skills to create and solve the appropriate equation.

Algebra can also spare you some embarrassment. Recently, Democrats in the Illinois legislature were preparing to ram through a tax hike that Gov. Bruce Rauner opposed. The proposal increased income taxes from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent. Subtract the old rate from the new one, then divide the answer by the old, and you can calculate the proposed change in the tax rate ? a 32 percent increase. But State Rep. Chris Welch, who may or may not have taken algebra, didn't understand that, and tweeted out this much-mocked and since-deleted meme:


Simple algebra, then, helps get across important real-world points about things that affect people's lives. It helps you avoid embarrassing mistakes. It helps you do statistics and calculus, which although less practical is still useful.

And if algebra is useful for writers, editors, and legislators, I imagine it's even more essential if you do almost any management job that involves procurement or construction (buying the right amount of materials), and obviously anything finance-related. Even if you can rely on a computer or a calculator to make simple calculations, the trick of algebra is often knowing which things to calculate. Computers can't do that part for you, or at least they can't easily do it.

No, not everyone needs to learn algebra. There are probably many manual labor jobs that don't require it. We shouldn't look down our noses at those jobs the way we do. But we also shouldn't treat the college degree like it's magical, as if it can confer knowledge or understanding without the training that traditionally goes along with it.

If a college student can't pass algebra, what it probably means is that some college administrator has already harmed him, robbed him in fact, by agreeing to take his money and place him in a program of study that isn't appropriate for him.