The classroom observes in horror as their instructor approaches the board with knowing haughtiness and scribbles hurriedly. He then turns quickly to face his abject audience who awaits explanation in baffled dread as they realize that numbers, concrete and predictable, have been replaced by letters, previously the concern of a far removed subject. “How can this be?” their combined voice inquires in bewilderment. The rest of the period is characterized by looks of betrayal exchanged between teacher and pupil. When at last the bell rings, the onlookers scatter, somehow permanently changed.
Then, despite initial hesitance and confusion, algebra becomes a staple of mathematics just as book reports are to English class. The odd, theoretical practice, bizarre as it is, becomes commonplace and somehow, despite logic, reluctantly accepted. Seemingly void of legitimate application, the skills associated with algebra are nevertheless ubiquitously taught and as a result their actual purpose is rarely questioned. With metacognition successfully debilitated, teachers have achieved ample leverage to continually increase the futility and fruitlessness of curriculum. Their requests become so obscure, students naturally assume the only objective of such strife is satisfaction of their superiors’ sadistic tendencies.
It was not until recently, many years of mathematical abuse later, that I have begun to realize the flaw in this paradigm. And admittedly, I often struggle to see any true value in my efforts to this day. “Surely no smidgen of the knowledge I slave to master will come to fruition in my ‘real life,’” I remember telling myself as I struggled to comprehend ‘X’ in all of its elusivity. When will I simply need to use substitution or elimination? Perhaps the application of factoring and punnett squares hides within the foreign ambiguities of adulthood I often pondered hopefully. This last hope, however, was abandoned as well when adults in my life confirmed by suspicions. No future career I may pursue would demand the ability to find slope from two points.
The paramount error of this analysis is its fixation on content as a means of satisfaction. This attitude assumes mathematical prowess the only goal of all mathematically-involved ventures. By this logic, the desired product of any practice would subsist only to the augmentation of a hyper-specific skillset. Here, the great inadequacy of this analysis is found. Can hours spent painting not build patience, appreciation for beauty of their surroundings, and deep, character-shaping patience as well as heightened art skill? Can mastering a sport gain the ability to corroborate, persevere through physical as well as mental fatigue, and work dutifully to achieve a sought-after mission as well as simply improved athleticism?
Any student who in honest endeavor has approached algebra with an alacritous spirit and dogged tenacity looks back on the experience with keen awareness of their consequential growth. It is maturity alone that allows an individual to see provisions made for them as rewarding despite frustration.
Unfortunately, all this seems true in theory and yet fails to bolster the spirit in the midst of struggle. Late at night, brow furrowed in confusion as arbitrary numbers and symbols swirl onward, little solace can be found in character development gained as a result of these seemingly insurmountable trials. It is in these moments when we least believe in our power to succeed that we must find the proverbial ‘X’. No matter how entangled and ensnared it is, we must reverse every coefficient that binds us to such a downtrodden spirit. Bursting forth, we must redefine the study of math from the accumulation of skills to the pursuit of growth. Only in this light will algebra provide a lifelong effect for all who pursue and investigate with a resolute determination.