kitchen table math, the sequel: Sen. Robert Byrd; in memorium

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sen. Robert Byrd; in memorium

Sen. Robert Byrd passed away this morning at the age of 92. I remember listening to many of his speeches on the closed circuit TV that was always on when I did my stint on the Hill in 2002. Yes, many of his speeches droned on and on, and covered topics often as mundane as how his wife made the best cranberry sauce he ever tasted. But he also was known for fiery rhetoric and a sharp wit that more than made up for his ramblings.

I'm a bit biased, but in my estimation, his finest oratorial work was his speech on "Rainforest Math", given on June 9, 1997, and can be found in the Congressional Record. Following is an excerpt. I strongly encourage you to "read the whole thing" as they say in blog land. May he rest in peace:

I have recently obtained a copy of the same strange textbook—this is it, as I have already indicated—and I have to go a step further and call it whacko algebra.

This textbook written by a conglomerate of authors lists 5 so-called ‘‘algebra authors,’’ but it boasts 20 ‘‘other series authors’’ and 4 ‘‘multicultural reviewers.’’ We are talking about algebra now. Why we need multicultural review of an algebra textbook is a question which I would like to hear someone answer, and the fact that there are 4 times as many ‘‘other series authors’’ as ‘‘algebra authors’’ in this book made me suspect that this really was not an algebra textbook at all.

A quick look at the page entitled, ‘‘Getting Started’’ with the sub heading, ‘‘What Do You Think,’’ quickly confirmed my suspicions about the quirky fuzziness of this new-new approach to mathematics. Let me quote from that opening page.

“In the twenty-first century, computers will do a lot of the work that people used to do. Even in today’s workplace, there is little need for someone to add up daily invoices or compute sales tax. Engineers and scientists already use computer programs to do calculations and solve equations. “

What kind of a message is sent by that brilliant opening salvo? It hardly impresses upon the student the importance of mastering the basics of mathematics or encourages them to dig in and prepare for the difficult work it takes to be a first-rate student in math. Rather it seems to say, ‘‘Don’t worry about all of this math stuff too much. Computers will do all that work for us in a few years anyway.’’

Can you imagine such a goofy passage in a Japanese math textbook? I ask what happens if the computer breaks down or if we forget and leave the pocket calculator at home? It appears that we may be on the verge of producing a generation of students who cannot do a simple mathematical equation in their heads, or with a pencil, or even balance a checkbook.

The ‘‘Getting Started’’ portion of the text goes on to extol the virtues of teamwork, to explain how to get to know other students and to ask how teamwork plays a role in conserving natural resources. What, I ask—what in heaven’s name does this have to do with algebra? I took algebra instead of Latin when I was in high school. I never had this razzle-dazzle confusing stuff. Page 5 of this same wondrous tome begins with a heading written in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, a map of South America and an indication of which language is spoken where. Pythagorus would have been scratching his head by this time, and I confess, so was I.

This odd amalgam of math, geography and language masquerading as an algebra textbook goes on to intersperse each chapter with helpful comments and photos of children named Taktuk, Esteban, and Minh. Although I don’t know what happened to Dick and Jane, I do understand now why there are four multicultural reviewers for this book. However, I still don’t quite grasp the necessity for political correctness in an algebra textbook. Nor do I understand the inclusion of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in three languages, a section on the language of Algebra which defines such mathematically significant phrases as, ‘‘the lion’s share,’’ the ‘‘boondocks,’’ and ‘‘not worth his salt.’’

By the time we get around to defining an algebraic expression we are on page 107. But it isn’t long before we are off that boring topic to an illuminating testimony by Dave Sanfilippo, a driver with the United Parcel Service. Sanfilippo tells us that he ‘‘didn’t do well in high school mathematics ’’ but that he is doing well at his job now because he enters ‘‘information on a pocket computer’’—hardly inspirational stuff for a kid struggling with algebra.

From there we hurry on to lectures on endangered species, a discussion of air pollution, facts about the Dogon people of West Africa, chili recipes and a discussion of varieties of hot peppers— no wonder our pages are having difficulty containing themselves. They are almost in stitches—what role zoos should play in today’s society, and the dubious art of making shape images of animals on a bedroom wall, only reaching a discussion of the Pythagorean
Theorem on page 502. By this time I was thoroughly dazed and unsure of whether I was looking at a science book, a language book, a sociology book or a geography book. In fact, of
course, that is the crux of the problem.

I was looking at all of the above. This textbook tries to be all things to all students in all subjects and the result is a mush of multiculturalism, environmental and political correctness, and various disjointed discussions on a multitude of topics which certainly is bound to confuse the students trying to learn and the teachers trying to teach from such unfocused nonsense. It is not just nonsense, it is unfocused nonsense, which is even worse. Mathematics is about rules, memorized procedures and methodical thinking.

We do memorize the multiplication tables, don’t we? Else how will one know that nine 8s are 72 and that eight 9s are 72. This new-new mush-mush math will never produce quality engineers or mathematicians who can compete for jobs in the global market place. In Palo Alto, CA, public school math students plummeted from the 86th percentile to the 56th in the first year of new-new math teaching. This awful textbook obviously fails to do in 812 pages what comparable Japanese textbooks do so well in 200. The average standardized math score in Japan is 80. In the United States it is 52.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Barry, for this reminder of one of Senator Byrd's finest speeches. How wonderful for a Senator (and a Democrat) to recognize that when mathematics is used to teach everything but math, our students and our country suffers a significant loss. I don't care if the textbook uses Mihn's name, but I do care that our children can perform in mathematics as least as well as Mihn does. By the way, I wonder how many textbooks authors in Singapore spend more time focusing on a PC distribution of names than they do on teaching the canon of standard algorithms. Seems like that is exactly the problem with American textbook authors and editors. Do the children in Singpore worry about whether it is Jose or Arun or Wang who is performing the function or do they care more - as they should - about getting the correct answer.

The death of Senator Byrd is sad for is family and sad for our country. Gone is the last of the great orators on Capitol Hill.

ChemProf said...

It is a nice speech, and not to speak ill of the dead, but the guy was rated 100% by the NEA, and not because he ever actually rocked the boat by voting against their legislation or for anything (like charters) that they didn't support.

Catherine Johnson said...

this is priceless!

I had no idea he'd given this speech.

Favorite sections:

the fact that there are 4 times as many ‘‘other series authors’’ as ‘‘algebra authors’’ in this book made me suspect that this really was not an algebra textbook at all


It is not just nonsense, it is unfocused nonsense, which is even worse.

Unfocused nonsense.

Always worse than you think.