Algebra, algebra, where art thou?


The Editor

The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento, CA


To the Editor:

Your recent front page story, "Algebra standard softened," on the dropping of the algebra I requirement for receiving a high school diploma in California (The Bee, March 12) was shocking and depressing. It seems that many California students are too lazy to make even a minor intellectual effort to learn the basics of Algebra. This is very sad, because algebra teaches you how to think and how to elegantly find solutions to seemingly difficult problems.

It's funny, students in China, India, Russia, eastern Europe and Western Europe all learn algebra easily and quickly. Is there something about our modern culture which makes learning difficult and unpleasant for American and especially California students?

I suppose that it is the combination of many pernicious aspects of modern American culture: the notion that all students must "feel good about themselves" even though they are total slackers and are unwilling to make a modicum of effort and thought to learn. Plus, the mass media, video games, computers, cell phones, television and fast foods all conspire to push true learning to a very low priority.

Perhaps the California schools need to take a different tack on algebra. I would suggest emphasizing its roots in early Arab culture and how Arabs lead the world in studying of mathematics, astronomy, botany, health and medicine and other areas when Europe was in the midst of its dark ages. The English word algebra comes from the Arabic al-jabr, literally, "the reunion of broken parts."

Actually, according to the 1964 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, the foundation of algebra was created in the Hammurabi dynasty (1800 - 1600) B. C., so we have to thank the ancestors of the Iraqi people to thank for creating the first concepts of algebra. Later, Egyptians and Greeks studied algebra. The Muslim culture in the Arab countries became the center of the study of mathematics and algebra, especially in the period 850 - 1100 A. D. Even the famous poet Omar Khayyam wrote about algebra.

So if California schools could focus on the Iraqi and Arabic roots of algebra, it might be more appealing for the students.


Yours truly,


James K. Sayre


12 March 2004