Originally published Wednesday, January 24, 2018 at 06:00a.m.
Numbers in elementary school were friendly. I was introduced to them in the very early grades and as I graduated from class to class, they followed right along with me and never changed their meaning. A four was always a four. It never tried to deceive me or pretend to be some other number. If I were walking down a dark alley and saw gang members three, five, eight and nine approaching me from the other direction, I wouldn’t be afraid. I knew I could add, multiply, subtract and divide them into submission without hesitation.
Then, algebra entered the picture and my mathematical confidence went into the crapper. First of all, algebra sounded as if it should be on the surface of a back woods pond instead of in a clean, lined classroom notebook.
In algebra terms, the number five was no longer a simple, unpretentious five because numbers weren’t just numbers anymore. They can pose as real numbers, imaginary numbers, irrational numbers, integers, whole numbers, round numbers, pluperfect numbers and numbers that run off to join the circus.
Sometimes numbers can be exponents and there are rules for exponents. I don’t know why exponents can’t live by the same rules as the rest of us. There are also rules for something called logarithms but I doubt they are always carefully followed. Besides, in my world The Logarithms should be a rock and roll band in the Great Northwest.
For some undisclosed reason, I decided to look up the definition of algebra. I found out that algebra is “A collection of subsets of a given set, such that this collection contains the empty set, and the collection is closed under unions and complements (and thereby also under intersections and differences).” Need I say more?
Three years ago I began substituting at the high school here in Chino Valley. I sat in on an algebra class to get a feel for the classroom since I’d never been a teacher before. A very tall and very experienced instructor spoke in tongues for nearly an hour. He mentioned slope-intercept forms of a line, radical signs and how to calculate a horizontal asymptote. Hey, I saw some radical signs in the park over the weekend! By the way, how does a horizontal asymptote differ from a vertical asymptote? I wasn’t about to ask.
Try as I might, I can’t remember a single example of when, as an adult faced with a challenge, I blurted out, “Wait; I know an algebraic equation that will solve that thing!”
My wife tells me that algebra trains the mind to think logically. For the life of me I can’t see the logic in contemplating the additive inverse property of anything or submerging myself in compound inequities. And don’t even mention polynomials to me! I long for a simple multiplication problem!
My own theory is that the NPA (National Parentheses Association) invented Algebra to increase the use of parentheses.
So, who’s really responsible for the scourge of algebra upon students in classrooms everywhere? Apparently, a Muslim mathematician with the unpronounceable name of Al-Khwarizmi is to blame. He actually wrote a book in 820 AD about it. Just so you’ll know, Algebra is the Arabic word aljabr meaning “equation.” OK, that’s entirely too much information as far as I’m concerned!
The next question is why did Al invent algebra? Didn’t he have enough other things to keep himself busy over that long weekend?
Other math courses in the Chino Valley High School curriculum are pre-calculus and calculus. I break out in hives every time I walk past that classroom.
Wil Williams, a resident of Chino Valley, is a retired advertising agency executive who served in the U.S. Army. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.