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Why Study Algebra? – An Answer for Readers of The Link
by Illana Herzig Weintraub

The truth is that you really do not need algebra unless you plan to teach it or use it in a scientific profession. But . . . before you ax your algebra books, let me give you some good reasons for studying algebra.

Algebra is a very unique discipline. It is very abstract. The abstract-ness of algebra causes the brain to think in totally new patterns. That thinking process causes the brain to work, much like a muscle. The more that muscle works out, the better it performs on OTHER tasks. In simple terms, algebra builds a better brain (as do other disciplines such as learning an instrument, doing puzzles, and, yes, even some video games). When the brain is stimulated to think, the hair-like dendrites of the brain grow more extensive and more complex enabling more connections with other brain cells. We often hear that we use only a small percentage of our brain’s capacity. The study of algebra is a way to increase our use of this marvelous muscle. By studying algebra, more “highways” are “built” upon which future “cargo” is transported . . . cargo other than algebra.

My favorite analogy is comparing the study of algebra to the construction of the railway system in the United States in the 1800’s. When railroads were built, surely those men never conceived of the items that would be transported on those rails more than a hundred years later. They could not have imagined home appliances and computer equipment traveling over that railway system. But they knew that building the transportation system was important. So is it with the study of algebra -- you learn algebra by transporting numbers and variables; later, those variables will change and you will transport something useful for your purposes.

An example in my own life is the four-year break I took from math education when I founded an activities company in Hawaii. I ran the business myself -- from creating forms to organizing activities for up to 1100 people per week, with folks going off in multiple directions for horseback riding, snorkeling, land tours, helicopter rides, deep sea fishing, windsurfing, etc., etc., etc. Buses and vans were coming and going at half-hour intervals, and only one person missed his ride -- out of 1100 people -- not too bad. So what’s my point? I think that the ability to organize a rational procedure for handling this kind of chaos came from my algebra background. You lay out the variables, design a procedure, and follow the procedure. It’s an intense form of organization.

Having said all this, I do believe, after all these years of experience with students, that algebra is truly not for everyone. I once had a ninth grade girl in my algebra class who, when I fretted over her disinterested attitude toward algebra, kept reassuring me that she really did not need algebra for her life. Today, she is a successful TV actress, and every time I see her on the tube, I say, “Charlotte, you were right!”

Which brings me to the right-brain/left-brain discussion. An actress, actor, or artist of any kind is a “right-brain"-dominated person. These people usually do not have an affinity for algebra. For the creative mind, algebra is usually quite a struggle. Those making an attempt at algebra bring themselves closer to understanding the mind of a “left-brain” person for whom math, science, and, usually, languages come easily. Much of our public school curriculum is based upon the latter -- a “classical” education rather than an artistic, “romantic” education.

There are other disciplines that will help build a better brain, but curriculum designers have chosen algebra as a universal “brain builder” as well as the tool to prepare those strong left-brain students for careers in math and science. – I.H.W.

Illana Weintraub is the owner of Math Media Educational Software, Inc. Please see our ad on page

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