When I was a little kid, math was just numbers. Add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Easy.
Then they started adding decimals. That was okay. I could divide a candy bar or an apple in half or thirds. Coins were decimals of dollars. It still made sense.
At that point, I gave up. Who cares and when will I ever need to learn this junk? Why study algebra in college? I was going to be a writer. Who needed Algebra 1, or the “New Math” version of Algebra? Like, when will I ever need to master a polynomial function? I deal with hyperbole, not hyperbolas.
It turns out that I did.
Let’s backtrack and look at the other side for a bit. Some critics say that algebra is holding back students. Kids are likely to drop out because they can’t pass proficiency exams, and algebra is the main reason why. Another article asks if algebra can help you understand the federal budget.
The answer is yes, it can.
Let’s address both points at once.
Algebra might not be completely applicable in life. Just like biology, or history, or poetry. But algebra does two things that are powerful and wonderful.
College Algebra challenges students to expand their minds.
Yeah, expansion can hurt. But like history or science, algebra introduces students to new ideas that they never considered. Algebra allows students to see the world in new ways—which may turn some off, but others who like seeing how things fit together in abstract ways are amazed at how the relationships between numbers change the world around them. Algebra is nothing if not an exercise in brain power.
College Algebra introduces life skills.
Do you need to know how to find a slope of a line? (Sure, you do! See my other blog! ). Or how about simply graphing X and Y? Plotting points is a basic tool in statistics to find out trends, conduct surveys, and understand data. If you’re going into marketing, finance, or anything that requires a chart, yeah, you need algebraic skills.
Not every skill is super useful. Quadratic formulas probably aren’t for everyone. But solving a quadratic formula involves breaking problems down into simpler puzzles, one step at a time. You end up dissecting a problem by looking at the sum of its parts. Want to see if a refinanced mortgage works for you? Check it out and figure it out, one step at a time.
And, yes, even as a writer, I needed algebraic skills. Algebra teaches students how to notice patterns in speech, description, and plotting. Poets count the number of beats and quantify them, and math can even inspire a story or two (Alice in Wonderland, anyone?).
So what should you expect from college algebra? A whole new world that is challenging, exciting, frustrating, and even beautiful in its aesthetics.
What do you get out of it? Depends on what you’re looking for. If it’s an equation, you get out what you get in. But the = sign suggests you get more than the sum of the parts.