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

Publication Date: 2007-06-13

Susan, Tom Magliozzi of Car Talk, and George Schmidt, editor of Substance, weigh in on calculus.

June 13, 2007

by Susan Ohanian

My husband, a physicist, was appalled at the very idea of being married to someone who hadn't taken calculus in h.s. or college, so for our first Christmas he gave me a big thick ugly calculus book. And our second Christmas I gave him a notebook with the problems worked out. I came across that notebook a few years ago. It might as well have been Sanskrit. Nothing about derivatives stayed with me two weeks after filling the notebook.

But I would submit: Doing calculus for love is a far better reason than we give most students.

I'm pasting in Tom Magliozzi's math attack because I think it's funny. On the surface, I reject Tom's notion that everything kids study has to be "useful." Maybe that's because I have a Master's Degree in medieval literature. But I don't think Tom is talking about surface usefulness. Leave that to the Business Roundtable and their political brethren.

Tom brings up an issue that Standardistos have driven from schools: What are we doing to help students become good, kind, empathetic people? What could they be studying instead of calculus?

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?"

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

School Should Be More Than Preparation for More School

By Tom Magliozzi

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."

By George Schmidt, posted to EDDRA


Colleagues. Friends...

I give a big rat's ass about high school calculus.

I think every high school in the USA should have calculus available to every
child who is ready to study it and learn it and wants it.

Therefore, be ready (in the schools I taught for 28 years in Chicago's inner
city) to offer a double period (that's about 100 minute) calculus class taught
by a teacher who knows (and hopefully loves) calculus to the eight or ten
children your school might have who are actually ready for (and interested in)
calculus during high school.

Otherwise, stop all this nonsense.

In Chicago, half our high schools are forced to offer "calculus" in combined
classes that include children who haven't mastered intro algebra. To call
those classes "calculus" is absurd. But Don Pittman (who is chief high school
officer in Chicago, a former basketball coach who doesn't even know algebra by the
way) told me two years ago, in an interview, that "all children will rise to
our level of expectations..." after watching one too many showings of "Stand
and Deliver."

That kind of Hollywood nutsiness is what's passing for administration
nowadays. Math illiterate education chiefs quoting Hollywood to oppress everyone
else. And being praised for it.

I come from a long line of people who love math.

I have a son who just graduated (from a Chicago public high school, Whitney
Young Magnet) with two years of calculus and a year of statistics ("5" score on
the AP stat exam; calculus AP score due next month). He studied Relativity at
Stanford in one of those "gifted" summer programs (between 9th and 10th
grade) and continued working on the math for half the following year (back in
Chicago) until he "got it" (Relativity).

I support fully that every child who really wants all the math he or she can
use and do should get it (in classes of appropriate size) in elementary and
high school.

And I agree 100 percent with Susan Ohanian here.

It's nuts to demand math skills for high school completion.

And it's equally nuts to claim that it's "racist" to say it's nuts.

The people who want kids to learn more math should be lobbying to get
appropriate class sizes (and the hiring of the right teachers; most high school
"math" teachers don't know enough calculus to teach it) so that the "advanced" math
classes are available in all schools for all kids.

Until they lobby for those structural changes (instead of just "higher
standards") they're hypocrites. As we know here, many children are "ready" for
algebra and lots of geometry by middle grades. Some are not ready until high school.

And most are never "ready" for calculus and shouldn't have to be.

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