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Modern Parenthood

Why algebra is necessary; why Mom needs to get a grip on math phobia

The recent suggestion that not every kid needs algebra is simply avoidance, and Mom needs to get a grip on her math phobia for the good of the family.

By Judy Boton-FasmanGuest blogger / August 10, 2012

Algebra is necessary argues a mom who has had math phobia. In this 2010 file photo, a student works on a math problem in an algebra class in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Emily Spartz/Argus Leader/AP

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Last week a political science professor named Andrew Hacker published an article in the New York Times, titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” The headline alone triggered my math phobia. Math is right up there with my fear of swimming. (More on my aquaphobia another time.)

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Guest blogger

Judy Bolton-Fasman is an award-winning writer who writes about parenting and family life for the NYT Motherlode Blog and the Jewish Advocate. Judy's work has appeared in The New York Times, the Boston Globe and O Magazine. She is writing a family memoir and blogs at The Judy Chronicles. She lives outside of Boston with her husband, daughter, and son.

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In my unscientific poll, my math anxiety is pretty typical for a woman my age. The thought of a quadratic equation – whatever that is – sends me into a panic. It’s tempting to agree with Hacker to skip the whole ordeal and just concentrate on the subjects I’m good at.

I don’t doubt Hacker’s statistics – that 6 million high school students and 2 million college freshmen are suffering under the weight of solving a simple equation like 5x+2 = 3x+10. But the truth is a high school graduate should be able to come up with four as the answer. I almost believed Hacker’s argument when he asserted that, “making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from  a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.”

But then I realized that he is, in fact, asking students to sidestep subjects that are difficult for them. Isn’t the point of being a student to challenge oneself? I ought to know. Writers are perpetual students. There’s no way around the fact that you have to put in the hours researching, writing and rewriting. Having said all of this, I’ve never met a writer who didn’t think writing was the hardest undertaking in the world. I had a teacher who told me that he psyched himself in front of the blank computer screen with these words: Down, Down, In.

To make it to the desk is the first of many small victories. Then it’s time to confront the equation that has to be solved, the Latin paragraph that has to be translated, the essay to say what you intend to communicate. These intellectual conundrums don’t simply loom large, they haunt one. You have to do this work because it matters. Hacker, on the other hand, reinforces the ultimate phobic behavior in education: avoidance.

Down, down, in. That’s how you’ll find your subject, gather your emotional strength, and cultivate your creativity. Lightning bolt inspiration is as rare as getting struck by actual lightning.

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