Richard Cohen, advocate for ignorance

Here is a serious problem:

Here’s the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know—never mind want to know—how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later—or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note—or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

That’s Richard Cohen, who is supposedly the ‘liberal’ columnist for the Washington Post, giving advice to a young girl.

It’s outrageous.

Because Richard Cohen is ignorant of elementary mathematics, he can smugly tell a young lady to throw away any chance being a scientist, a technician, a teacher, an accountant; any possibility of contributing to science and technology, of even being able to grasp what she’s doing beyond pushing buttons. It’s Richard Cohen condescendingly telling someone, “You’re as stupid as I am; give up.” And everything he said is completely wrong.

Algebra is not about calculating the answer to basic word problems: it’s about symbolic reasoning, the ability to manipulate values by a set of logical rules. It’s basic stuff—I know many students struggle with it, but it’s a minimal foundation for understanding mathematics and everything in science. Even more plainly, it’s a basic requirement for getting into a good college—here, for instance, are my university’s mathematics entrance requirements.

Three years of mathematics, including one year each of elementary algebra, geometry, and intermediate algebra. Students who plan to enter the natural sciences, health sciences, or quantitative social sciences should have additional preparation beyond intermediate algebra.

This isn’t what you need to be a math major. It’s what you need to just get in, whether you’re going to major in physics or art. Richard Cohen is telling Gabriela to forget about a college education.

I’m sure that he has never once rued not being able to use algebra. If I had never heard a poem or listened to a symphony or read a novel or visited Independence Hall, I could probably dumbly write that I don’t miss literature, music, or history…never heard of ’em. Don’t need ’em. Bugger all you eggheads pushing your useless ‘knowledge’ on me!

That kind of foolish complacency is what we’d expect of the ignorant, but it takes the true arrogance of the stupid to insist that others don’t need that knowledge…especially after you’ve dismissed the utility of algebra because they can just use calculators. What, Mr Cohen, you don’t think the engineers who make calculators need algebra?

Cohen insists, though, that algebra is useless and doesn’t even teach reasoning.

Gabriela, sooner or later someone’s going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not.

That’s easy enough for a man to say, especially when his very next sentence is an example of the quality of the reasoning he believes he mastered with his ability to write.

The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence.

Maybe it’s because I was bamboozled by all those teachers who taught me algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, but I don’t think a bogus anecdote (seriously—the college prep crowd at my high school were taking math, languages, English, etc., and doing well at all of them) is “proof” of much of anything.

It’s about what you’d expect of a fellow who brags elsewhere in his essay that his best class in high school was typing. That’s right, figuring out mindless, mechanical reflex action, rote memorization, and the repetition of stock phrases from a book were the height of intellectual activity in Richard Cohen’s academic career. And the highlight of his elementary school education must have been mastering breathing. This is the man whose advice about education should be taken seriously?

After all, education isn’t important to live a happy, contented life.

I have lived a pretty full life and never, ever used—or wanted to use—algebra.

If sheep could talk, they’d say the same thing.

Yeah, a person can live a good, bland life without knowing much: eat, watch a little TV, fornicate now and then, bleat out opinions that the other contented consumers will praise. It’s so easy.

Or we could push a little bit, stretch our minds, challenge ourselves intellectually, learn something new every day. We ought to expect that our public schools would give kids the basic tools to go on and learn more—skills in reading and writing, a general knowledge of their history and culture, an introduction to the sciences, and yes, mathematics as a foundation. Algebra isn’t asking much. It’s knowledge that will get kids beyond a future of stocking shelves at WalMart or pecking out foolish screeds on a typewriter.

We’re supposed to be living in a country built on Enlightenment values, founded by people who knew the importance of a well-rounded education—people like Thomas Jefferson, who had no problem listing the important elements of a good education.

What are the objects of an useful American education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish and Italian; mathematics, natural philosophy, natural history, civil history and ethics. In natural philosophy, I mean to include chemistry and agriculture; and in natural history to include botany, as well as the other branches of those departments.

Note “mathematics”, which would have included geometry and algebra. In Richard Cohen we have a 21st century man insisting that an 18th century education is too much for our poor students.

While Cohen may think a little more English or history is an adequate substitute for elementary mathematics, Jefferson would suggest otherwise…and if anything, this sentiment has become more true in these modern times.

[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power.

I can’t resist. I have to let Jefferson dope-slap Cohen one more time.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

(via the SciAm blog)

This is a disturbing coda to the story. Gabriela gave up on school and got a job at the local Subway sandwich shop, but now she has new aspirations:

“I don’t want to be there no more,” she said, her eyes watering from raw onions, shortly before she quit to enroll in a training program to become a medical assistant.

Ahem, what? She can’t do basic algebra, and she’s going to be a medical assistant? That is terrifying—remind me not to ever get sick anywhere near LA.


  1. #1 niuzai033
    December 23, 2009

    Lrg prdcts whlsl sl, prvds cstmrs dmnd

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