March 31, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

The New Math and Science

Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.

Henry Brooks Adams

When my older children were going to what was then called junior high school, the "new math" was in vogue. They went to an excellent school with a superb math teacher and they actually learned the new math. What was the new math? It was what mathematicians call "set theory" and it dealt with numbers using various bases and converting from one base to another. One thing that I did learn from the new math was that what base you use is more or less arbitrary. Most of what we use in everyday life is in base 10. Computer language is in base 2. We use base 10 because we have 10 fingers. I don't know if anyone uses any other bases anywhere in the world. Outside of the esoteric world of theoretical math, I doubt it.

My kids learned it and taught it to me. It was something that neither they nor I ever used ever again. For anyone who is not going to become a professional mathematician(which is almost everyone), it was a colossal waste of time. Needless to say, educators soon realized what a waste of time it was and it was abandoned.

Now there is a "New Science," which children are now being taught in schools, and sometimes learning. Part of it is the biology that happens to be in vogue today, which is molecular biology and ecology. It is presented in great detail to kids who will never use it again. Sure, there are exceptions, and those kids may eventually become scientists, if the schools don't turn them off. In a class of 30 students, there might perhaps be one student like that. More likely it would be one in several hundred. A science teacher considers himself fortunate if he has a few such students in his lifetime. A renowned professor in some branch of science will do much better than that. Even he will consider himself fortunate if a few of his advanced students do work that he can be proud of. Of the rest, most will lead full and productive lives, but it will not be as scientists or mathematicians.

In the early grades, it is very obvious what most kids need. They have to learn to read, write and cipher. In this modern world, we have to add that they should also know how to use a calculator and a computer. Everyone, male or female, should know how to drive a car and how to change a tire. They should know how to write a check and make the balance in their checkbook be the same as the one on their bank statement.

Some kids will go on in engineering. For them, calculus is important. Some will go on in medicine and for them calculus is almost useless, but they will have to learn enough of it to pass exams. It is one of those medical school elimination courses these days. Passing those courses with a good grade shows the medical school admission committee that the applicant can endure almost anything and can remember things that he might never use again in his whole life and will probably forget soon afterwards. In other words, many math courses are elimination courses for those who would go on to what is called "higher education."

I think that it is much more important that young people should all learn not to be embarrassed by what they don't know and be willing to tackle the problems that they will encounter in life.

The idea that every kid should be taught everything and be expected to remember it is just plain silly; but that is what is being advocated today, even though everyone knows that it is as impossible as flying by flapping your arms.

Even more ridiculous is the idea that if a kid passes an exam in a subject, that he understands the subject matter. It usually means that he has memorized some words. Some kids are very good at rote memory and some are not and it is no index of intelligence; at least not the kind of intelligence that is meaningful in life.

However, this system does insure that the textbook and test makers stay in business. And it is a very lucrative business.

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