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Shakespeare Didn't Need College Algebra

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Message Barbara Ellis

In a new book Shakespeare Didn't Need College Algebra, author Barbara G. Lenmark wondered, as a professor, why so many liberal-arts majors were constantly failing a degree requirement, College Algebra. They probably never would use it--and had already taken at least two high school required algebra courses fulfilling the rationale for this requirement: logic, reasoning, problem solving, and persistence. Moreover, too many often were forced to take from one to four pre-requisite classes just to qualify for College Algebra. So she decided to enroll in that class and write a first-person account of her experiences.

That meant going incognito for nine months in those courses, the first two at a community college, the last two at a state university. What she discovered shed a shocking light on what is principally an unnecessary course for liberal-arts majors, as well as a financial boondoggle for math departments at the expense of students' tuition, time, energy, emotions, and talent. In this book, readers will get a vicarious, often hilarious, experience of a "bonehead's" daily slog through those classes. But, far more important, they'll also find an invaluable set of step-by-step lessons written especially for non-math types to master the major algebraic concepts and processes in the three pre-requisite courses and College Algebra. This excerpt is from the opening chapter.

Shakespeare Didn't Need College Algebra


It started simply enough. Clint, one of the quietest journalism major I'd ever had, waited for the last student to leave the classroom. Then, he spoke for the first time all term.

"Math 121 is how come it'll take more than four years to finish," he said, picking up a point made in today's lecture about the trend of a degree taking five or more years. Math 121 had different course numbers around the country, but its title was always either "College Algebra" or "Pre-Calculus"--the former preferred.

I groaned inwardly. Not another liberal-arts major whining about that four-hour course required for all degrees. Of the hundreds I'd advised, so few journalism majors had passed it the first time that my standard advising pitch was to drop down to three light-weight courses when they took it. Give it undivided attention, I'd encourage, because so many admitted they'd been "rotten" in math since grade school days. Almost didn't graduate from high school because of it.

I was about to roll out other bromides ("most colleges require a one-hundred level math class," "it teaches problem solving, logic, organization, etc."). But was startled to see Clint fighting tears. Common for coeds insisting, "I'll never use it!" But never men. Some cursed. One hit my desk in fury. None ever cried. Yet here was a lad who looked like a poster boy for the Marines, verging on unmanly conduct--and before a woman professor.

"This is my fourth time through," he said. "And they say I'm not trying!" Up came the square jaw and the murderous look. He turned away. I was unaware then that many students at our university and those elsewhere--probably including Clint--were taking four pre-requisite courses even to qualify for College Algebra: Math 30, Math 50, Math 55, and Math 90. Only College Algebra credits counted toward a bachelor's degree.

At four credits per course at nearly four-hundred dollars per credit, those five courses would cost eight thousand dollars. Plus books, a calculator, supplies and maybe a private tutor ($10-15 per hour). Too, repeating a "pre-req" meant paying an additional sixteen-hundred dollars. Even if Clint had not flunked a pre-req, four repeats of College Algebra still cost a small fortune! To say nothing of having to postpone other courses and being robbed of study time for those he was taking. Getting his BA degree would take years.

I looked shocked.

"Clint! That class has cost you more than six thousand dollars!"

He shrugged. "You gotta have College Algebra to get a degree."

I wasn't about to admit that when I was an undergraduate, no math was required if you could prove it wasn't needed in your major. The only math ever needed in journalism involved doing headline counts or sports statistics. So I petitioned for a waiver successfully and escaped. So did those majoring in most liberal-arts fields such as history, political science, speech, philosophy, sociology, theater, art, English and all the foreign languages, religion, and physical education.

Is Math Really Vital to Careers and Life?

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Dr. Ellis is the principal of Ellis & Associates, LLC, a writers group in Portland OR, a nominee for a Pulitzer Prize in history in 2004 (The Moving Appeal), and a former journalism professor at Louisiana's McNeese State University and Oregon State (more...)
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