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Jewish World Review
Sept. 17, 2008
/ 17 Elul 5768
Victims of math hysteria
As you may have heard, the California state board of education instituted a new policy requiring for the first time that all eighth graders study algebra. Or, more precisely, that they take classes in algebra (whether they actually study remains up to them). And while I take no official stance pro or con about this new rule, I believe I speak for most California voters when I say of the notion that algebra will be forced on the state's eighth graders, "Better them than us."
That's because, like many adults, I recall with barely concealed horror my own grade school experiences in math class when I struggled to understand esoteric concepts like the Pythagorean theorem, "absolute value" and the "sine curve," not to mention the disappointment I felt the day I discovered that "learning about pi" did not involve an in-class pastry party. But now that our own school days are well behind us, many of us feel that the current generation should not be allowed to get out of the same suffering we endured. "Be sure to make them memorize that damned 'quadratic equation,'" is our general attitude. "Oh, and throw in some of that confusing 'new math' too. And maybe even the Metric system while you're at it!"
Frankly, even though it is no longer socially acceptable to criticize others based on race, color, gender, religion, nationality, age or weight, an overtly anti-math bias remains one of the few prejudices that people feel free to express publicly. Want proof? Just ask a math teacher. That's because any time a math teacher reveals what he or she does for a living, the inevitable reaction goes something like, "You're a math teacher? Ugh, I hated math. Math class was always sheer torture."
It's difficult to imagine people responding with such unconcealed hostility for most other professions:
"You're an arborist? Ugh, I've always hated trees," or "You design webpages? Webpages are the absolute worst. I wish I never had to look at one again."
Most math teachers eventually learn that they can avoid this kind of kneejerk resentment by instead telling people that they hold down more socially acceptable jobs, such as professional baby seal clubber or Nigerian email scammer.
How bad has our collective aversion to math become? It's even reflected in one of the most common expressions we use when recounting stories, even when the stories themselves have nothing to do with math, as in the following example.
"Well, this being Uncle Walter's first trip to Mexico, he wanted to sample some of the local cuisine. That night he scarfed down a big bowl of chili con carne, a plate of jalapeno poppers, two chimichangas, a half dozen beef enchiladas, and an order of fried ice cream. Unfortunately, he had forgotten that you're not supposed to drink the water down there. Well, wouldn't you know it, on the way back up to his hotel room, the elevator broke and poor Uncle Walter, who never had what you'd call an iron constitution in the first place, was stuck in that thing for hours. Soon enough all that Mexican food began really percolating around inside him and, well, you do the math."
Sometimes, of course, the directive that "you do the math" is supposed to be taken literally. That was the experience of my good friend Adam who, to protect his identity, we'll just call by his initials, "A.W." Anyway, in college A.W., made the mistake of majoring in math and, as a result, whenever he went out to eat with friends, they would always shove the check at him, saying, "Hey Wilson, you're a math major - you figure out the tip."
Here Adam's dining companions were falling for a common misconception - specifically, that math majors are automatically good at basic arithmetic. Contrary to popular belief, higher level math does not involve groups of bespectacled, white coat-clad individuals poring over particularly difficult problems of long division. It is a little known fact that even legendary genius Albert Einstein could not figure out how to use a simple multiplication table. Or, for that matter, a comb. No, the reality is that math majors typically spend most of their time attempting to solve extraordinarily challenging and highly theoretical questions, such as why girls won't go out with them.
All this hostility and ignorance surrounding math aside, I remain hopeful that studying algebra will, in the end, prove useful for the state's eighth graders. Because if they bide their time, one day they too will be out of school and in a position to punish the next generation of students with a whole new set of pointless math requirements. And if third graders balk at the idea of studying, say, advanced calculus, well, that will be the perfect opportunity to acquaint them with the expression, "You do the math."
JWR contributor Malcolm Fleschner is a humor columnist for The DC Examiner. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
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© 2006, Malcolm Fleschner