Recent madcap political initiatives – producing gigantic expenditures like Democrats’ $1.9 trillion “stimulus plan,” and supported by disingenuous media coverage – have prompted me to come clean on my own dark past in math-education during the 1950s.
My recollections were triggered by an item from a writer named Michael Howard, who related his experiences teaching junior high math in Austin, Texas. Mr. Howard taught there for a half-year, but his contract was not renewed because of “irreconcilable differences” between him and the school system’s governors. He said student self-esteem was such an obsession in the Austin public schools that students who had trouble memorizing the multiplication tables were given a small card containing those facts (through 9×9). The card could be carried and referenced at any time, including during tests.
Mr. Howard saw that this “crutch” was keeping students from developing the skills needed to become mathematically functional. By always using the card, they weren’t gaining the facility with multiplication facts that one needs to master fractions, algebra, and higher branches of math. He said this misguided sensitivity caused his loss of confidence in the public school system. (One imagines that they were glad to see the back of him.)
As a product of public schools in the “pre-sensitivity” era, I can only say that those Austin students can thank their lucky stars that they didn’t have to endure the self-esteem-destroying horror of my own math-education in Allentown, PA – circa 1952. Our fifth grade teacher, Miss Schenk, was, shall we say, “neo-Hitlerian” in her teaching style. A harridan of uncertain age, fierce temper, and tiger-like stealth, Fräulein Schenk might spring, at any moment, with heart-stopping suddenness upon an unsuspecting student whose attention was wandering. Without warning she would crash her ruler – carried like a Nazi swagger-stick – down upon the desk of an evil-doer. She splintered at least twenty of them during the term. (Rulers, that is – not desks.)
But the cruelest part of her modus operandi fascisti was her twisted use of mathematical material as punishment. When a student misbehaved in some way, his or her name was entered on a section of the blackboard reserved for the names of miscreants. Having one’s name posted there dictated a requirement to write and hand in the multiplication tables, through 12×12 – repeated tenfold. (Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!)
Additional infractions added tics to one’s name – each tic requiring a repetition of the full multiplication-tables assignment. (Some students had dozens of additional tics.) As assignments were handed in, tics were erased. Truants periodically received fierce tongue-lashings to motivate completion of their assignments. Bales of paper were used up in that pre-environmental era. Today, that class would be raided by the Eco-cops.
Some kids must have written the tables 100s of times. Naturally, they could recite them in their sleep. This included even those hulking 14-year-olds sitting in the back row of the class, who had repeated several grades. Luckily, we now understand that such kids should be pushed through the system and out the door without over-concern for whether they actually know anything. Too late for me, educators realized that self-esteem is far more important than mere knowledge. Besides, now we have calculators.
Today, a teacher like Miss Schenk would be arrested for student-abuse. Armed police would frog-march her from the classroom in handcuffs to do hard time, as her liberated captives celebrated and leapt gleefully to erase their names (and tics) from the blackboard. Choruses of “Free at Last!” would ring through the halls.
Nearly seventy years on, I often think about her methods and reflect on the harm she must have done to the self-esteem of so many. True, many of her students – I among them – went on to math and science careers. We sailed through the high-tech era well “ahead of the curve” – coping easily with complex economic and mathematical problems. We never had to bear the nuisance of making incorrect measurements, or being unable to balance the checkbook, or being shortchanged at stores. Multiplication facts sprang instantly to mind when we needed them.
Even those “holdbacks” in the back row – guys who later ran gas stations or drove beer trucks – turned out to be “very sharp” with numbers. (I always wondered if they suffered any lingering effects to their self-esteem from the punitive tables-writing.)
But there was an even darker side. In years ahead, many of us who survived Miss Schenk’s classes insensitively ragged wooly-headed clerks who – despite high self-esteem – couldn’t make change to save their lives if the cash register didn’t calculate it. (Businessmen say they have been saved from complete ruin by those change-computing devices.)
Car salesmen didn’t confuse us, and we had no pity on them. How they must have hated a customer who could do arithmetic in his head. Ditto for mortgage brokers, investment counselors, and bankers.
Tax returns held no terrors for us – only boredom. We laughed at lotteries that offered odds of 1-in-125,000,000. And we refused to borrow on credit cards with 18% interest rates. Indeed, we probably undermined the economy by preventing many people from making an easy buck. I’m ashamed to realize it today.
Do the positives offset the Dark Side? Who can say? But I still shudder at the cruelty of the uncaring insistence that we master those math facts. There was no appeal – no sensitive official to deliver us. In those days we didn’t know enough to skip classes, torch trash bins, march on the school board, and demand resignations. It was a terrible ordeal. For years I had a recurring nightmare in which I found my name on the malefactors’ blackboard with scores of tics beside it.
Yet this doesn’t fully measure the abuse of math’s Dark Age. My entire life has been cursed with the perverse ability to see incorrect calculations, and an uncontrollable urge to demand their correction. (I hate myself for this.) The church treasurer groans when I attend congregational meetings. Business associates fumed when I critiqued the numbers in their presentations.
It turns out that the guy who knows when a calculation is wrong, and says so, is never popular. (Who knew?) I still worry about a midnight-raid by Department of Education “math-abuse agents” who have finally caught up with me. I know it’s just a matter of time.
I sometimes wonder if I might have turned out better-adjusted, and a better citizen, if Fräulein Schenk had been stopped before she ruined me and so many others by making us mathematically capable. Wouldn’t it have been better to be stupid and fit in?
Today, entire wings of mental hospitals are populated by math-adept people who finally cracked up under the strain of trying to fit into a math-ignorant society. (Relatives say I’m headed there – probably should be there already.) Those inmates used to worry about the size of the national debt and funding for government programs. It’s not hard to see what their absence has done to the country. (Trillion-schmillion – whatever…?)
Thank heavens, schools are now run by people who understand the emotional and social damage that mathematical acuity can produce. They went into education because they stink at math, but their heroic work in dumbing-down math education to help students fit in is a mission of mercy for millions. Many graduates today might not know 7×9 from 4×8, but their self-esteem is secure and their sensitivity to other ignorant people is a marvel to behold. What a blessing to society!
They have no idea how lucky they are…