Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What is the Value of Shakespeare?

Richard Cohen lamented last week that many students are now required to take algebra in order to graduate from high school.

“You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it… 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.”

Mr. Cohen, I have news. Writing is not a form a reasoning. It is a form of communication. You can use writing to make an argument, but writing itself does not require reason. Many news reports are a sad example of this. Pretty words and emotional imagery are so much more impressive to reporters than actually weighing and presenting evidence. Statistics, in my opinion, should be a required course for journalism majors since statistics are so often cited in news reports yet rarely with the sense that the reporter even knows what those numbers really mean. Por ejemplo, this article in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago that called sexual harassment on college campuses “routine”. However, if you look at the survey’s definition of harassment, it’s a bit broad. I was this close to writing a post on it called “38% of College Students Lead Sheltered Life”. Honestly. If you never see or hear something offensive in a 4 or 5 year time span (college or no), you are either too jaded to be offended or you live in Chatham, VA.

Where was I? Oh, yes. You think algebra useless? The computer you inevitably wrote your article on was created by people who find it quite useful. Ah, but they’re not you. You, who value words above numbers. Fine. You don’t have to take algebra, and I won’t have to study Shakespeare. Or John Steinbeck. Or (please, please, please) Ethan Frome. While I actually enjoy some Shakespeare, the others I could most certainly do without. They serve only to torment me, with stories that are not enjoyable at the surface, but are supposed to mean something if you just dig into the symbolism of it all. Why can’t the story be enjoyable at a superficial level, with the symbolism being an added bonus? Can’t we just agree that all of the books they make you read in school are utterly depressing and shouldn’t be shoved down already anxious and depressed teenager’s throats? No? Then you have to solve for X.

Now, perhaps those who get the willies when they think about numbers could take a class on logic that would teach reasoning in a linguistic rather than mathematical format. But algebra is not useless, even to those who will never find occasion to apply it. Just as literature gives me a window into the cultural world, so should algebra give you a better appreciation for how complicated the world we live in really is.


Anonymous diana said...

I'll take Ethan Frome over Hemingway any day of the week.

2/26/2006 2:13 AM  

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