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.


Author: genevieve one

Originally trained in Classical Studies, I now work at a major research university translating Science into Standard English. I write novels because . . . well . . . I can't stop!

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