The New New Math


A lot of people enjoy surprises. I don’t. Consequently, one of the things I like best about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer surprises left for me in life. The present election aside, almost everything I see these days looks an awful lot like something I’ve seen before, and as a person who reads the ends of books first so that I know what’s coming, “more of the same” always suits me just fine.

Right now there’s much breathless discussion in the local newspaper about the degree to which the STEM curriculum—which the paper characterizes as “new”—should be implemented in our local schools. From my point of view, STEM isn’t new at all. In fact, I myself am the product of an earlier, equally impassioned attempt to “make American students competitive world-wide in math and science” which resulted when our great rivals of the time, the Soviet Union, put a beeping stainless-steel beachball called Sputnik into low earth orbit. On the whole, I think the STEM curriculum is all well and good (and STEAM, which incorporates art into the program, sounds even better), but knowing how the whole Sputnik thing eventually played out has made me just a little bit cynical about the transformative power on students of one curricula over another.

As far as I’m concerned, anything that persuades the American taxpayer to invest money in education is great, be it a useless beeping space-ball or the creeping realization that high-paying but low-tech jobs are becoming scarce. But one thing I don’t like seeing included along with the extra dollars for STEM is the same mood of national paranoia that was issued to me and my classmates along with our books. This time the “threat” seems to be a generalized fear that people in other countries are taking over what we regard as “our” jobs; in my day it was the Commies. Long before I could reliably have pointed out Russia on a map, I already “knew” that the schoolchildren there studied harder, were far more disciplined, and just generally knew more about everything than I did. This wasn’t, in fact, the case (as we now know); but my friends and I were convinced that it was our patriotic duty to catch up with the Russian children because in some mysterious way this might prevent The Bomb from one day being dropped in the middle of our playground. (I don’t think anybody told us this in so many words, but we believed it with all our young hearts.) Overall, a vague sense that we might be learning math for our very lives wasn’t very good for us.  I wouldn’t like to see that mistake repeated.

I’d also like to know for certain that the STEM curriculum is a little better thought-out and more widely tested than the so-called “Enrichment Education” of post-Sputnik days. “Enrichment Education” was responsible for (among other things) the two years I spent (NOT) learning “New Math,” a scheme for teaching arithmetic that emphasized concepts over actual problem-solving. There were students in my class who loved New Math, and did well in it; but they were the kind of kids who, provided with nothing more than a small box of rocks, a piece of string, and the formula a2 + b2 = c2 would probably have independently re-invented calculus. The rest of us started middle school unprepared to do long division, far less algebra.  Luckily for me, calculators were invented soon after; but honestly, rather than a calculator I’d have rather had a firm grasp of the algorithms necessary to solve simple math problems for myself.

I also think the educators of today should keep in mind that, at least as far as I could tell, by the time I went to college, beat-the-commies Enrichment Education had produced just about the usual ratio of mathematicians and engineers to liberal arts majors. I suspect it will be the just the same with STEM. Don’t get me wrong:  I actually think that–with a few caveats–STEM classes are probably a wonderful idea; and as I said, I’m in favor of anything at all that puts dollars into schools. I even think that most of those extra dollars should be spent teaching on science and technology, since STEM subjects, which require laboratory work, are more expensive than the liberal arts to teach. But money is one thing, and classroom hours are another. STEM or no, I don’t want to see the liberal arts neglected.

I feel very strongly about this not because I personally love the liberal arts (though I do), but because I work in the Biochemistry Department of a major university, and I talk to scientists and science students all day long. And all of them tell me—laughing, but a little rueful, too—that everything that they presently know or are learning about science and technology will be out of date in ten years. On the other hand, new discoveries and ideas will never render the knowledge and values imparted to them in their liberal arts classes irrelevant or obsolete. Their whole lives long, any historical fact they pick up, or book they read, will add to–not negate or replace–what they already know.

They could even read a book about New Math.  Hey, better them, than me!

And by the way, on election day, be sure to vote.  If there’s a bond issue for the schools on your ballot, at least consider voting “yes” on it.  Democracies work best when the electorate is educated and informed.


I’m Casting My Vote for Better Characters


I know I’m not the first to observe that the current campaign for president is the most polarizing and divisive in memory; but I may be the first to find a good use for the fact that it is. I’ve decided that it will make me a better writer if I keep reminding myself that supporters of the candidate I don’t plan to vote for (and never mind which one that is) live in the same country I do, eat the same food, watch the same television, speak the same language, and are presumably cognizant of the same facts as I am, and yet hold completely different opinions and support completely different policies from me. Completely different. In fact, this election cycle has made me realize the degree to which I previously underestimated how much people can have in common and still end up in some ways totally unalike.

Sometimes when I write, I forget this. I put in characters who are “different” from the ones with which I personally identify, but I make them villains, or damaged in some way—even crazy. Or I don’t put characters like that in at all. I write exclusively about people who are like me. This election cycle, stressful though it has been, has at least been useful for reminding me that I personally do not define what is rightly human, and should include other kinds of people among my characters.

Otherwise, I’ll just end up writing another Looking Backward.

…And speaking of Looking Backward—which I’d rather do, because it’s a much more fun topic than the election—did anyone else have the same reaction to it as I did, that it was meant as a post-apocalyptic thriller?

No one warned me ahead of time that the book’s utopian future (the year 2000;  Looking Backward was written in 1888) was intended to be taken seriously. I kept waiting for the protagonist, the time-traveling Julian West, to realize that the citizens of the future he’d stumbled into were just waaaaaaay too content with their creepily bland and uniform culture. I waited for him to react with mounting horror to the growing realization that it was unnatural for everyone in this brave new world to be perfectly satisfied with a life spent doing nothing more exciting than listening to music (albeit right in their own houses, on their “telephonic devices”—Bellamy was a much better futurist than novelist); and never minding that the music they listened to was always someone else’s choice; or bragging to a stranger that they could eat all their meals “in any public kitchen they chose,” without ever wishing that they could select their own menu. Were all the citizens really so peacefully inclined that no one ever even wanted to watch a prize-fight, WrestleMania, or a hockey game?

And what was with the eerie degree of satisfaction the women—who were supposed to enjoy equal opportunities with men, by the way—derived from being able to buy any kind of fabric they wanted at one store? I’ve shopped for fabric. Even with a great selection, it’s not that fun. And furthermore, why were they shopping for fabric at all when Bellamy eventually reveals that in actual fact, clothing in this paradise is made of sturdy paper, to be discarded when soiled?

—Okay, the part about the paper clothes was actually in Equality, the sequel to Looking Backward—but that’s all right, because my point is that all the characters in both books were all identical to each other in outlook and attitudes*, and I mustn’t do that when I write. The guy on my street, the one with the sign for that other candidate for president, is a pretty nice fellow, really; and in a non-election year, I actually like him. I must try to remember to put people like him—not insane, and not evil—in my next book.

In the meantime, here’s an article on the subject of election-season stress that concludes with the useful recommendation to cope with anxiety by cuddling a puppy. Go visit your local Humane Society. They have puppies who will gladly exchange cuddles for calm with you.

*That is, they’re identical to each other except for a misguided few—briefly alluded to—who persist in committing unspecified “crimes.” Crime in the never-never land of Looking Backward is a “medical disorder,” and treated as such. Don’t eat the food in the public kitchens, Julian West! The public kitchens are obvious delivery-points for whatever substance the citizens are being secretly dosed with to engender all that exaggerated “calm.”

Creative, or Just Crazy?


Before I started writing semi-seriously myself, I wondered why so many writers seemed to have come from “difficult” backgrounds. And by “difficult,” I mean specifically family situations with some seriously mentally ill people in them. It seemed like a lot of writers had also been poor; but in fact being poor and having mentally ill relatives—especially close ones—are not unrelated. It’s expensive to have mental illness. Seriously mentally ill people can’t keep good jobs, they make bad financial decisions, and even a brief stay for someone in a locked ward will cost the family a bundle.

Eventually I figured out (I think) why mental illness and writers are so often linked—and it’s not in the way that some of my literature professors said it was. They thought that having some crazy (their word) relatives meant that the authors themselves were probably also crazy; and that for the authors to be a little crazy helped them to write.

This is confusing “crazy” with “imaginative,” I think. Writing’s actually pretty hard work; and unless you think being self-motivated and disciplined is a sickness—okay; you might be right at that—crazy is the last thing a writer should be.

But if you know any mentally ill people, you know that they are often unpredictable. Furthermore, a lot of mentally ill people act more or less unpredictably depending upon how the people around them respond to them. Ergo—and you can believe me on this, because I know what I’m talking about—people who live with or close to mentally ill people often become hyper-vigilant to the thought-processes—however subtly expressed—of other people. They learn know that if they misread the mental state of a person with mental illness, their mistake may engender worse and more unpredictable behavior.  And since it’s hard, sometimes, to tell just who and who isn’t mentally ill, it’s best to be alert to everyone else’s mental state.

Okay, very sad. On the other hand, could there be better training in the world for people who want to create believable characters with credible motivations than to grow up hyper-vigilant to the way other people think and act?


So the lesson here is that if you want to write and you have no known crazy family members—and after checking first to be sure that you’re not the one who’s mentally ill—you must, for the sake of your writing, drive at least one close relative around the bend immediately. Don’t hesitate: After all, it’s for art.

Some Pretty Good Reasons Not to Write


A really good reason not to take up writing as a hobby is because writing is lonely. Really lonely. Since humans use the same part of their brains to write and to talk, they can’t do both those things at the same time. Knitters can knit and talk; ship-modelers can build ship-models and talk; artists can paint pictures—even a masterpiece—and talk (the illustrator Neysa McMein—you young folks won’t know her—used to throw massive parties in her studio and sit at her easel, a glass of champagne in hand, and turn out covers for Liberty magazine while doing her duties as a hostess); scrap-bookers can scrapbook; poodle-trainers can train poodles—all while talking. But the only way writers can get any writing done is by shutting out the rest of the world and getting on with it. I actually can listen to music while I write—but I don’t really hear the music.

Another reason not to write—at least not fiction—is because it’s self-revealing. Even if you don’t want it to be. Even when you think it’s not. Someone I hardly knew (and, frankly, wanted to impress) asked me what techniques I favored for dealing with my anxiety. She said, “I know you have panic attacks. I read Ant-Lands.” (!) Well, damn.

Also, no writer is ever successful. Ever. This is mostly because nobody can define what success as a writer means in the first place. Are you a successful writer if you publish a book? Two? Ten? A best-seller? Quit the day job? Achieve Immortal Fame and Glory? Okay, that last one definitely would qualify as “success.” —On the other hand, long before the Immortal Fame and Glory thing kicks in, you will be dead.

Articles like these—the second one meant to be humorous, but containing a sting of truth—are illustrative:

Toil, toil, great writer, for anonymity awaits

Library of Congress

But I’ve said enough on this topic. Now I have to get back to writing on my novel.