[Paleopsych] NYT: The Last Time You Used Algebra Was...
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The Last Time You Used Algebra Was...
NYT December 12, 2004
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
IN the 1986 movie, "Peggy Sue Got Married," Kathleen
Turner, an unhappily married wife and mother, magically
returns to relive her senior year as the most popular girl
at Buchanan High.
She leaves a math test blank, and when her teacher
(described in the screenplay as "an officious little
creep") demands an explanation, answers: "Mr. Snelgrove, I
happen to know that in the future, I will never have the
slightest use for algebra. And I speak from experience."
Audiences and critics loved the line, presumably because
they too rejoiced in knowing that they had never, ever used
the quadratic formula again. (Disclosure: I squeaked by in
calculus while never really grasping it, and can no longer
help my ninth-grade daughter solve equations with two
variables. The toughest math I tackle now is calculating a
tip in a moving taxi.)
Last week, the United States proved, yet again, that its
mathematical literacy is abysmal. In a survey by the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it
ranked 28th out of 40 countries in mathematics, far below
Finland and South Korea, and about on a par with Portugal.
The survey tested simple, "everyday" skills like
estimating the size of Antarctica or footsteps in the sand.
Nonetheless, as in past comparisons, American 15-year-olds
did rather better than students in Mexico, Indonesia and
South Africa, and substantially worse than those in rich
countries, especially Asian ones.
These annual humiliations produce two consistent reactions.
One set of experts grouses that the surveys are unfair:
average American students are compared to distant elites;
Americans play sports and hold jobs; foreign countries
impose national standards while America believes in local
Another set gloomily predicts that math malaise will
ultimately gut the economy, frequently citing an estimate
that American businesses waste $30 billion a year on
remedial training. (In 1990, the elder President Bush
announced an expensive plan to have American students lead
the world in math by the year 2000.)
But there is also the Peggy Sue school of thought, which
asks: So what?
In all but the most arcane specialties (like teaching
math), the need for math has atrophied. Electronic scales
can price 4.15 pounds of chicken at $3.79 a pound faster
than any butcher. Artillerymen in Iraq don't use slide
rules as their counterparts on Iwo Jima did. Cars announce
how many miles each gallon gets. Some restaurant bills
calculate suggested tips of 15, 18 or 20 percent.
Architects and accountants now have spreadsheets for
everything from wind stress to foreign tax shelters. The
new math is plug-and-play.
True, those calculators and spreadsheets and credit card
machines need to be programmed. But, in between bouts of
visa restrictions, American universities successfully
import thousands of math whizzes each year because jobs
await them, and the tiny percentage of American-born
students who do Ph.D. work equal the world's best.
In math, as in chess, countries that produce the most
grandmasters per capita - like Hungary and Iceland - not
only don't rule the world, they don't even rule chess.
Sheer power counts, as it did in chess for the Soviets.
America may lose math literacy surveys, but it dominates
number-crunching in every sphere from corporate profits to
supercomputers to Nobel prizes.
So is it necessary that the average high-schooler spend
years nailed to the axes of x and y?
Maybe not, said Robert L. Park, former director of the
American Physical Society, an independent group of
physicists, who teaches at the University of Maryland.
"As a teacher, I'd like to think it's going to have a huge
payoff," he said. "But I'd like to know the answer."
He once calculated that a third of the Americans who won
Nobel prizes were born abroad, and said that an open-door
policy benefited both sides: American universities get
well-trained, driven students, and they in turn flourish in
the more creative atmosphere here.
Bob Moses, who developed the Algebra Project in Cambridge,
Mass., focuses on the other end of the spectrum: poor
blacks and Hispanics who are the first in their families to
aspire to college. "No one is going to pay you because you
can do division," he said, but added that without a grasp
of the concepts his students would be "serfs in the new
information age," stuck in dead-end jobs as surely as
illiterate Europeans were forced to the bottom of the job
heap by the Industrial Revolution.
Most experts point out that careers in science or computers
require mathematics, even when it is not a real job skill
but a filter for the lazy or stupid, as passing freshman
physics is for pre-med students. (Disclosure: me, for
example.) Physics requires calculus, calculus requires
algebra and trigonometry, and so on. One must start early.
In the age of Googling and spell-checking, noted Diane
Ravitch, the education historian, the "so what?" question
could be asked about learning virtually any subject.
"But a democratic society demands an educated populace,"
she said. "Why spend hundreds of billions on public
education if we're going to sling it over our shoulder?"
But the best defense - the first to get beyond the
utilitarian argument - came from a certain Miss Collins.
She is my daughter's math teacher at a school where there
are no boys to distract or intimidate calculating young
"If you ask the girls," she said, "they'll say it's another
hoop they have to jump through to get into a good college."
She feels otherwise.
"What we do isn't exactly what mathematicians do," she
explained. "And I know more alums here become artists than
become mathematicians. But kids don't study poetry just
because they're going to grow up to be poets. It's about a
habit of mind. Your mind doesn't think abstractly unless
it's asked to - and it needs to be asked to from a
relatively young age. The rigor and logic that goes into
math is a good way for your brain to be trained."
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