Is Algebra Necessary?

Perhaps my browsing of Moriyasu's primer for gauge theory, in an afternoon effort to better understand the Higgs Boson, disqualifies me from serious comment on Andrew Hacker's "Is algebra necessary?" opinion piece* in today's New York Times. Algebra is not a subject that causes me anxiety. I learned it, and thoroughly, back in high school, and have forgotten none of it, since. Nevertheless, I had a hard time of that class, owing to a teacher who was unable to control disinterested and unruly students. It was not a subject that gripped the average teenager forty-four years ago, any more so than today. I am in favor of the radical rethinking of quantitative education for which Hacker argues. I agree that "decimals, ratios and estimating, sharpened by a good grounding in arithmetic" are worth a great deal more than any formal facility to manipulate algebraic expressions. But any redesign of the math curriculum must be very careful not to create a backwater from which more advanced mathematics cannot be reached. As important as mathematical knowledge is a sense of path, that in learning one set of material you are now able to take (if you want to!) the next step. Passing algebra is a license to learn trigonometry, and trigonometry the calculus. Whether Hacker's curriculum can provide the same roadmap remains to be seen.

*Is Algebra Necessary?, Andrew Hacker, New York Times, July 28, 2012.