High school diplomas in California without even passing elementary algebra. Brilliant.


The Editor

The San Jose Mercury News

San Jose, CA


To the Editor:

Your recent front page story, "Diplomas, minus algebra rule," on the massive waiving of the algebra I requirement for receiving a high school diploma in California (The Mercury News, April 6) was shocking and depressing. It seems that many California students are too lazy to make even the minor intellectual effort to learn the 8th or 9th grade level basics of Algebra. This is very sad, because algebra teaches you how to think and how to elegantly find solutions to otherwise unsolvable problems.

It's funny, students in China, India, Russia, eastern Europe and Western Europe all learn the elements of basic algebra easily and quickly. Is there something about our modern culture which makes learning mathematics 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 even 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 present-day 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


6 April 2004