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Who Give's a Rat's Patootie About High School Calculus?

School Should Be More Than Preparation for More School

Publication Date: 2002-09-08

In this commentary on "All Things Considered," April 4, 2001, Tom Magliozzi asks, "Why did I and millions of other kids spend valuable educational hours learning something we would never use? Is this the goal of education, the teaching of skills that we'll never use?"


Despite the fact that all of my being wanted to cry out in despair, I sat there quietly in my son?s math class. It was back-to-school night at my son's high school, a time for parents to spend 15 minutes in each of their kid's classes so that the teach could describe what the course if all about. And on the board was the following description--Get this--Calculus is the set of techniques that allow us to determine the slope at any point on a curve and the area under that curve. And all of my being wanted to cry, "So who gives a rat's patootie?? I mean, sitting in that math class, it occurred to me that I had almost never had occasion to use any of the mathematics I had almost never had occasion to use any of the mathematics I had learned beyond maybe long division.

Later that night, I changed my mind. It wasn't true that I had never used any of the math I had learned in school. I had, in fact, used all of it, but only as preparation for all the other math courses that I had taken. My conclusion was this: The purpose of learning math, most of which we will never use, is to prepare us for more advanced math courses which will use even less frequently than ever. So why did I and millions of other kids spend valuable educational hours learning something we would never use? Is this the goal of education, the teaching of skills that we'll never use? The answer we would get from the
math teachers goes something like this: ?You may never use it,? they say, ?but it will teach you to think.? And to those misguided souls I say, ?Horsefeathers. Do you expect us to believe that there are no topics that are useful and that will teach me to think? Come on now.?

Actually, I sat in my driveway one day, and in an hour, in an hour, I had made a long list of subjects that I wished I had been exposed to in place of algebra, not to mention geometry, trigonometry, calculus. I ended up with these thoughts: Education really ought to help us to understand the world we live in. This includes flora, fauna, cultures, governments, religions, money, advertising, buildings, cities and especially people. Then it should help us
to cope with that world. And in the process, it would be nice if it helped us
to become good, kind, empathetic people. Algebra doesn't do any of these things. It seems to me that schools should be preparation for life, preparation for more school.

Tom Magliozzi was a college professor for more than 30 years. With his brother, Ray, he is co-host of NPR's "Car Talk."


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