Like every other mathematician, I had a knee-jerk reaction to novelist Nicholson Baker's piece (warning: paywall) in the September Harper's bashing Algebra II. I mean, really, what does some fiction writer know about it, amirite?
Then, after tracking down a physical copy of the magazine at an actual bookstore, I read it. And I was frustrated. And not for the reasons you might think. And not for reasons others have pointed out (and those are good reasons, by the way--read them).
No, I actually agree with much of what Baker has to say. My whole issue is that the article is disingenuous, perhaps even intellectually lazy. The real issue under discussion is school reform and the whole accountability movement; Baker simply uses a very unpopular subject (Algebra II) as his straw man. In particular, he grabs rational functions as an example and then goes on to pillory the topic as evidence of how useless Algebra II is for the average person and how this causes students to feel stupid and worthless.
And he's not even wrong (apologies to Wolfgang Pauli). Baker is smarter than this, and indeed, he goes on to argue that the real problem with high school mathematics is that it's been decontextualized and broken into a sequence of discrete steps, each devoid of meaning. He's largely correct, but his counterproposal has lots of its own flaws.
We've done this to all of K-12 education, though. Our slavish devotion to test-taking has forced students and teachers to develop coping mechanisms. Here's an example from my own life, which happened just this weekend. My son began high school this year and he's taking something called "Honors Pre-AP English I" (this is real, not some Orwellian nightmare). On Saturday, I learned the "CD/CM method" of essay writing. It goes like this: fill out a sheet with your "funnel" (4-7 sentence introduction), your thesis statement, and then for each of three paragraphs you have 11 (!) sentences--your topic sentence (fine) and then CD#1, CM#1, CD#2,CM#2,...,CD#5,CM#5. What is a CD, you ask? Concrete Detail. A CM? Comment, of course. Now, this is really just a super-extended outline for an essay, but my son was extremely frustrated by this, eventually exclaiming, "I just want to write the damn paper!" But the worksheet is part of the grade. What to do?
Well, we worked it all out, but the bigger point is this: All of education these days is a sequence of discrete steps, decontextualized and devoid of meaning, which are to be spit out on a standardized test. My beef with Baker and Harper's is that they picked on math to sell magazines and all this article will accomplish is to make the Common Core crowd (of which I am not a member) dig in their heels to defend Algebra II. Meanwhile, American students continue to languish in underfunded schools that crush creativity. Business as usual.