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Why Math? A Modest Proposal

One nasty aspect of this terrible pandemic is the struggle with online learning. The eighth-grader in our house is one of those struggling, and because of local Covid cases and her asthma, she is unwilling to return to in-person school.

The biggest struggle is with math. I can relate because I had similar problems at about the same grade level, but at least I was in school, face-to-face with teachers and others who helped. (Although my eighth-grade math teacher was a misogynist and thought girls weren’t good at math, but that was the 1950s.)

I don’t get it either.

I am 75 years old and never in my life have I needed to be able to solve anything like the problem above. Nor have I ever needed to find the area of a triangle or a circle. A rectangle, yes, if you’re measuring for wallpaper, but that’s about it. Given her similar skills and inclinations (art, English and theater) I’m guessing the same is true for her.

So this is my Modest Proposal:

In seventh grade, test kids for math aptitude. In eighth, track them thus: those who show skills for engineering, science, medicine or as math teachers learn geometry, calculus, trigonometry and whatever other -metries there are.

The arty kids, the sporty kids, the ones who can be successful without learning how to plot an angle on a graph (like me), learn what I call useful math: basic arithmetic, simple accounting, financial planning, budgeting, yes, even how to find the area of a wall to see how much paint to buy. Problem solving, puzzles and calendar/clock math are also useful. That’s how I got math credits to graduate from college–a course in programming in Basic (I could program a quadratic equation but had no idea what it was) and a summer course that was all about Venn diagrams and problem solving. It was actually fun, and I got an A, thanks to a brilliant young grad student brought in at the last minute when the scheduled professor died.

This two track systems seems so obvious to me that I don’t understand why educators haven’t figured it out as well. My therapist says doing hard math helps with brain development. But so do reading music, learning a play script or balancing a checking account.

I wish educators would wise up and try this. It would save tears and grief across the land: my small contribution to child-raising. Let’s start a movement!

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