The San Francisco Chronicle still knows how to catch my eye. This morning's front page (admittedly below the fold) carried the headline A Matter of Mathematics (for some reason, Jill Tucker's article is titled Algebra—it's everywhere on the Chronicle's website). It's all about the new state mandate that California's 8th graders must learn algebra.
I've kept my peace concerning the controversy because there are no subtle issues to discuss. The problems are completely obvious. Frankly, we have neither the funding nor the teachers to pull this off. Even if we had the qualified math teachers, putting them in 8th grade would not do the trick. It's too late. Students who are ready to learn algebra in 8th grade are typically the survivors of years of substandard math teaching. Many are simply not ready. How could it be otherwise? Elementary school teachers gain their teaching credentials with barely a glance at mathematics. The governor's plan for 8th grade algebra is a top-down scheme doomed to die, probably with a lot of collateral damage.
We have to start at the bottom, enhancing the quality of math teaching in kindergarten and first grade, then working our way up to 8th grade. Unfortunately, there is no likelihood that we can make major progress on such a project because we are already short of credentialed teachers. Raising the math requirements for a teaching credential will exacerbate one problem in an attempt to solve another. (The solution, if and when it comes, will probably involve math specialists who take the burden of math teaching away from their elementary school colleagues, but once again we have a numbers problem—both in terms of the supply of math specialists and the dollars with which to pay them.)
An abiding difficulty is the way our society regards math and the creepy nerds who like it and are good at it. I embrace my creepy nerdiness, but others may be less bold. Math skills may attract disdain rather than admiration. As John Allen Paulos pointed out in his book Innumeracy, people will go to great lengths to conceal illiteracy. The inability to read shames them. By contrast, however, some educated people practically brag about their mathematical ineptitude, as if it they are worthier human beings for their innumeracy. The Chronicle was ready with a few pithy quotes to make this point in a sidebar accompanying the news article:
“Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.”I'm not going to pick on a poor librarian from Pacific Heights who even seems to be aware that she is flirting with a stereotype (and I'm sorry that she will be a spinster for her entire life), but Lebowitz is an irresistible target. She, after all, is a famous writer and polemicist who sometimes appears to expect to be taken seriously.
“At the risk of perpetuating the stereotype of librarians ... I'd be glad to state, on the record, that algebra is uniquely useless in life, and that the only good number is a call number.”
—Nadine Walas, Pacific Heights
Is this one of those occasions? Or is Lebowitz just yanking our chain in her cheerfully in-your-face manner? I don't think it's that hard to tell. Lebowitz is making the mistake that is one of humanity's most common failings: If it doesn't matter to me, it's not important. Lebowitz is simply more willing to go on record with her irrationalities.
That's one of the reasons I seldom take her rantings seriously. She's been on record for a long time concerning one of her abiding passions: drugs! Consider this painfully obvious rationalization of her chemical dependency, which appeared in a Bob Morris interview in the New York Times on August 10, 1994:
[S]he holds her Marlboro Light and inhales in a way that has the I-dare-you-even-to-raise-an-eyebrow quality of an artist, rock star or teen-ager.The words are in the cigarettes. I remember having a good laugh when I read those words for the first time, back when the interview was first published. Hey, Franny. Suck harder. Maybe there are numbers in there, too!
“I feel very stimulated by cigarettes,” says Ms. Lebowitz, who smokes two packs a day, most of them while she's talking or writing. “Nicotine has that effect on me. That's what it's supposed to do. It's a drug. Drugs work. That's why people take them. Sometimes when I don't feel well, someone will tell me to try drinking some daffodil tea. I tell them, ‘No, I think I'll take tetracycline, thank you.’ It works faster. Like cigarettes. They get to the point. The words are in the cigarettes.“
I can't help but remember a cadre of my classmates from 8th grade who used to slip across the road during recess to light up off school grounds and relieve their need for nicotine. The words they appeared to find in their cigarettes during their smoking breaks were not considered printable in those days, but now I suppose they could be great writers.
If only I had known what I was missing! I, too, could have become a writer!