solving for x…

I wonder what life would have been like if no one had ever thought to invent algebra.

I haven’t taught algebra yet to any of my children. I mean to say that in our unschooling lives I have yet to crack open a book on algebra with them at the kitchen table.

I’m avoiding it like the plague, at least formally.

There may be no way around it. Up until now I’d secretly hoped some great anti-algebra theories will surface in the next year or so before Riley’s “high school” years hit. If there was any reason I’d hope the Mayans might be right about that calendar thing it would be to avoid teaching Algebra in 2012.

So because I’m stressed about the idea of teaching of the dreaded Algebra I thought it might be helpful to find metaphor in it, you know, to soften the dread a little.

In doing a little research on it, I discovered some really interesting things. First off, the concepts of Algebra have their roots in Ancient Babylonia but the firmer points were developed around 820 AD by a Muslim mathematician, Al-Khwarizmi. The name “algebra” was taken from the title of the book he wrote about this new branch of math around that time. It’s considered to be the cornerstone of most modern sciences.

I’m told that Algebra was created because they needed a language to describe something they had no words to describe. In essence they invented it. They invented new “invisible” numbers in fact, to describe that which they could only experience but not explain. Up until this point it was Greek concepts of math, namely Geometry, which ruled the day where math was concerned.

So essentially we move from this very physical, tactile form of mathematics to this new thing, this cerebral and probably somewhat mind blowing concept of seeing daily, quotidian things in a different language, a language of numbers. We moved from the visible to the invisible, the seen to the unseen. At it’s essence Algebra is a way to describe things we do every day, the quotidian, in the language of numbers and equations.

That’s impressive. No, seriously, think about it. Al-Khwarizmi in 820 AD sat down and said to himself, I know that this task happens every day. The fisherman gets up every day, he knows the winds, he knows the sea, he knows his boat, he knows the season. This man’s livelihood, his very life and that of his family depends on this knowledge. The fisherman solves for “x” every single day. “If I do THIS….then THIS is the projected result.”

Some might say that what Al-Khwarizmi did was to take life and complicated the hell out of it. I know I thought that when I was in High School. Now that I’m Mrs Metaphor, I’m not so sure.

Now that I see things through metaphor, to the point of annoying everyone around me, I think I totally get Mr Al-Khwarizmi. I think he may have been an artist at his very core. Rather than understand his work and that of his peers and his successors as some long term plot to drive right brained people such as myself completely batty I think I can now appreciate better the deeper implications of “solving for x.”

Lord knows I spend hours thinking about the deeper implications of the quotidian. Every load of laundry is more than a load of laundry. Every action I take and every word I speak in the most ordinary realm has it’s effects on the rest of the day, the rest of the week, the rest of the month. Al-Khwarizmi and I would have some very cool conversations about this I’d wager although I’m pretty sure he’s lose me about 10 minutes into it. He’d lose me because he was brilliant, obviously but more because he’d be speaking a language HE developed. He made this way of speaking. Mathematicians spend years learning this language even now. It’s akin to theology students learning ancient Greek and Latin or Opera singers studying French and Italian. It’s foundational to understanding the deeper concepts of a craft. It is above all else, a language, which is why it’s so bloody frustrating for those of us who only have reason to speak it once in a great while.

I’m certain I’ll spend more time here as we climb hopefully into the era of “high school” homeschool around these parts. In the meantime, I’ll stop here, knowing I’ll be solving for “x” all day but knowing just enough to get me out of bed and into the boat for another day of fishing.


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