Friday, March 4, 2016

Let's clone Jaime Escalante!

Above: mathematicians
wasting their lives.
Hey look everybody, math is stupid and hard and we should all just stop trying to learn it. Finally, right? At least that's what Professor Andrew Hacker says in his book, The Math Myth and other STEM Delusions. Yes, a professor! Ok, professor emeritus, and when he professing regularly he was a professor of social science and not math, so multiply his idea by a factor of salt. See that? That's was a little math humor. If it's not funny it's because I'm bad at math.

There is, unfortunately, only one
Jaime Escalante. Also, he's dead. 
Anyway, in this interview with NPR's Anya Kamenetz, Hacker draws a distinction between basic arithmetic, which he says we should totally all use and more complex computational skills like trigonometry, algebra calculus. The more complex stuff, he says, is keeping a fifth of students from graduating and since nobody really needs to find the area of a circle to be a functioning adult, we might as well drop it from the curriculum. It's not that Hacker is anti-math, he's just realistic. He'd love to see an educational system that inspires kids to love math, but passionate, dedicated math teachers are kind of few and far between.

Most of us, through luck of the draw, got stuck with bored, disengaged middle school math teachers who'd be hard pressed to generate enthusiasm for candy and R-rated movie day much less algebraic equations so, maybe we should lower our expectations a bit when it comes to advanced mathematical proficiency.
"Ok kids, what's it going to be? Predator 2 or Showgirls?
Anyone? How bout skittles? Everyone likes skittles, right?"
"What's a train?"
He's got a point. I mean, the first thing a frustrated middle-schooler does when things get confusing is raise their hand and ask 'when are we ever going to use this?' It was hard enough to answer back when everyone had calculators, but it's almost impossible now that everyone has iPhones with access to the sum of all human knowledge. I mean, should we really be flunking kids because they can't tell a numerator from a denominator or math out the arrival time of trains?

Sure, I suppose the wifi could go out and civilization could devolve into a savage battle for survival, but these kids have already read Hunger Games, so they're pretty prepared already.
If each of the twelve districts send two tributes, how many kids do you
have to murder on live television to get Donald Sutherland off your back?
"And thanks to our skill set, we know
exactly how shitty our pay is..."
-Some math teacher
It's just that there's something lazy-feeling about Hacker's suggestion that we lower standards for students rather than raise standards for math teachers. Ok, maybe not lazy, just cheap. It's hard to make enthusiasm a job requirement, especially when we pay teachers something like $40,000 a year which is on par with park rangers and dance instructors. I'm not saying that the people who take care of our parks aren't super-important or that our children don't need a solid foundation in jazz and tap, I'm just suggesting that maybe we reevaluate our priorities as a society when it comes to things like professional sports and Fortune 500 company CEO's who make something like 400 times a teacher's salary and no, I didn't do the math myself, I asked Siri.

I mean this is America, right? We went to the moon (shut up, yes we did), we didn't decide it was too far and then settle for a trip to Vancouver or something, and we did it with math. We did it because it was the hard thing to do. We did it because we believed in American exceptionalism and-holy shit, it is really hard for me to get enthused about math. Like, I'm really trying here. Thanks a lot, public school.
"238,900 miles? That's like a million miles! Fuck this..."

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