So leave the fractions behind

Missing from the debate over No Child Left Behind is whether what is tested for is even worth learning. Arithmetic, for instance, was a vital skill to fill the clerical needs of the 19th and 20th centuries. Nobody uses it anymore except elementary school students. This is especially the case with fractions. As for carpenters, all their fractions are powers of two and have nice decimal equivalents such as 0.25; 0.75 and 0.125. Can anyone honestly come up with a practical use for the skill to calculate 2 2/3 divided by 1 1/6?

It is sometimes stated that knowledge of arithmetic is essential to understand how the number system works. That’s doubtful. Most of arithmetic is learning complicated algorithms or memorizing tables, which actually do more to conceal the number system than [promote its] understanding. But, even if true—it’s irrelevant. I don’t have to know electronics to use a TV, or mechanical engineering to drive an automobile. You might just as well require kids to learn weaving or soap making, two other previously important skills that might be fun but are hardly essential. Indeed, we ask our children to spend so much time learning useless skills that there’s scant time left over to learn how to use numbers in practical applications.

The obvious alternative to “manual” arithmetic is hand-held calculators. Sometimes I hear the argument “But what will you do if you haven’t got a calculator?” Actually, that’s pretty hard to imagine. Our world is filled with computers and smart cash registers. It hard to imagine a need so urgent it couldn’t wait until a calculator could be found. It would be far more practical to buy a stack of $5 calculators and store them in libraries and schools, free for the taking. It is sometimes said that most of Einstein’s time was spent doing sixth-grade arithmetic. How might the world be different if he had had the use of a simple calculator?

Once the absurdity of the situation is acknowledged, the question rightly arises, “So why are we doing it?” Aside from leaders so invested in things that have “always been done this way” that they have no idea how the world has changed, I think the real reason is that so many of them struggled with arithmetic in grade school that they want modern kids to suffer just as much as they did. Standardized tests on irrelevant skills is one good way to accomplish this.

— George Gjelfriend

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3 thoughts on “So leave the fractions behind

  1. travelah

    Do you have a difficult struggle with solving mathematical problems? Einstein constructed his General Theory using 10 coupled hyperbolic-elliptic nonlinear partial differential equations that very few people could or can piece together in a coherent fashion (I’m not one of them and I do know my 6th grade arithmetic). You are advocating a further dumbing down of our society when the more palatable solution would be to push a return to classical education.

    A.M. Mallett

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’m going to have to agree with Mr. Mallett here. I suppose it’s partly curmudgeonliness, but having worked with young people in retail situations with “smart cash registers,” and I’m amazed that so many of them are completely baffled if anything goes wrong. Why? Because they have no concept of something as simple as making change. I’ve seen these folks accidentally hit total a second time,clearing the screen. They know that the purchase was $15.45 and that the customer gave them a 20, but if you step in and show them how to count the change back to add up to 20, the response is like you’ve just performed some amazing magic trick. I find that kind of sad just on the basis of basic knowledge. And I despise math and lousy at it.

  3. John Whitton

    I quite agree with Mr. Gjelfriend. Furthermore, I suggest that we eliminate science curricula in general, as they generally involve mathematical expressions which cannot be easily handled (if at all) by “a $5 calculator.” Not unusually sciences require that the students actually *understand* the mathematical relationships that are the basis of those sciences. This clearly causes undue stress on students…, I mean, they aren’t actually ever going to design an automobile or a TV.., right? And, after all, the cash register will do the math for them…..,at their job down at the Burger Doodle.
    Mr. Gjelfriend need not fear, it would seem that the students (always knowing what is best) are instinctively pursuing more meaningful paths once they escape the talons of the
    math-frustrated totalitarians that forced learning on them in the primary and secondary systems. I note that in the Spring of 2007 UNC-A had more than twice as many ‘Literature’ majors as Mathematics majors. So, rest easy Mr. Gjelfriend, our future is in the hands of people well equipped to deal with the complexities of emerging technologies…., or at least to read about them.

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