I’m good at math. I’m not the best but I make a living and the truly awesome math guys are as brain meltingly sharp as they are rare. Conversely the vast majority of Americans can’t math their way out of a paper bag so the bar is set pretty low. Tragic really.
This means I sometimes get shanghaied into helping kids with math homework. I avoid this when possible. There’s two kinds of math homework I like; the stuff I get paid to do by a grateful employer and assignments where I charge struggling college students until they bleed for my services as a tutor. Beyond that I’ll stick to stacking firewood in blissful obscurity. Helping a elementary student in public school? Thankless.
The problem is that I do math specifically for the purpose of finding the right answer. Public schools teach math as if the journey is the destination. It’s not.
Every teaching “professor” tries to rethink basic concepts we’ve known for hundreds of years so they can publish another new, updated, improved, extra-important, “this is the best ever” method with a trendy name like “new math”, “improved logic”, “lattice method”, or whatever buzzword will secure grant money. Their minions at the local school follow in lockstep. Here’s a hint; mathematics (particularly at grade school level) isn’t cutting edge. It’s wise counsel to shut up and teach it without fanfare. Kids are (for the most part) already hardwired for math unless some derelict has gotten there first and beaten it out of them.
Want proof? Amish kids use the same methods that were around when George Washington was carving dentures out of felled cherry trees. At introductory levels this doesn’t put them at a disadvantage. Meanwhile school districts float loans to buy computers for third graders and eventually churn out truckloads of economic cannon fodder. I call bullshit!
Since kids are expected to do whatever wingnut process an education major with spare time invented, I get crap when I help them. I’ll step them through deriving the exact right answer using whatever method makes sense to me (or the kid). Public schools hyperventilate in response. Who’s got time for that?
However this kid was desperate. She’s a smart little critter and had tried mightily. The kid’s mother had tried too. I was asked ever so kindly to help and I happened to have fresh coffee in hand (always the best time to get me to do anything).
I glanced at the paper. Without actually knowing the correct answer I could tell their shot at it was wrong. (You may have guessed my specialty is statistics; identifying “wrong” in a heartbeat is the first step in pursuing “correct within a margin”.) But how was I going to explain it to a kid in public school? “I’m sorry. I can’t explain how to solve this without Algebra.”
“I’m in algebra!” The kid beamed.
Perhaps all is not lost with the next generation! We launched into a discussion of algebra and the kid got to the answer right quick. Kids are meant to be smart; it’s good when they still have their spark!
Homework wrapped up, I shared a Curmudgeonly secret of life, “Pay attention to algebra. You can use it to solve problems in subjects you don’t know a darned thing about. You can sometimes do this while ‘experts’ in the specialty (if they happen to be math illiterate) wander around with their pants down and ‘loser’ stenciled on their forehead. It’s one of many secret keys to awesomeness.”
Then I related a story about how I (inadvisedly!) snoozed through half a year of undergraduate hydrology. When a mid term rolled aloud I was supposed to have memorized a dozen formulas. (I hadn’t.) With the clock ticking I derived the formulas from scratch right there during the test. Algebra was the method I used because memorization was the method I’d ignored. (Also hydrology ‘aint rocket science). I, slacker from hell, walked away with one of the highest grades in the room. Something that still amuses me now.
For once I had a kid listening to me. Cool! Then came my second proclamation “If you know math. I mean really know it. You can pin an employer on the ground and pull money out of their hands. And they’ll thank you for it.” The kid nodded. “You can do this when half of your peers are washing dishes and aspiring to become a Wal-Mart greeter.” The kid was drifting but I yammered on like the old fart that I am. She dozed the next few seconds and came to as I was finishing my monologue “…drive your enemies before you. That is what is good.”
The kid, sensing an opportunity, shoved another homework assignment my way. What’s this? It wasn’t algebra at all. I glanced around for an escape. There was none. I skimmed the paper.
“This,” I began, “is not math. It is social engineering.”
“Um…” The kid looked uncertain. “I don’t think they call it that.”
“Of course they don’t!” I groused. “They don’t call it bullshit either. Yet thats what it is.”
“Er… What’s ‘social engineering’?” The kid asked.
“Social engineering is when an unqualified worker in the employment of the State takes it upon themselves to manipulate children as they see fit.” I sipped more coffee. “An activity formerly reserved for people deemed more appropriate, such as clergy or respected elders.” I reflected further “or sometimes cult leaders and gangs. Maybe Mafia leaders. You know what I’m saying?”
The kid looked at the paper. She did not know what I was saying.
“But I’ll help you. It’s time to see if your teacher has a sense of humor.”
[Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion to this week’s Curmudgeonly mayhem]