The Wrong Answer

Dear readers

I’m overwhelmed with the self-imposed task of sorting out my “life”—all the papers and books that have accumulated over the years because “how can I throw this out?” or “I was just thinking of writing about this,” or “how come I never read this?” etc.   Therefore I’ve not been blogging of late.  (I’ve set Thanksgiving as my deadline for house-cleaning, and already have 11 boxes full of books which I part with nervously.)

But I can’t resist this amazing piece that Michael Goldenberg sent me (even if it delays the final job by a few…days?): Nicholson Baker’s The  Wrong Answer: The case against Algebra II (in Harpers Magazine, September 2013).  Twenty-five  years ago a few of us at Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem brought some top mathematics educators together to press this same case, and seek a sensible solution for what needs to be taught–and learned.  We thought we were lonely nuts, and our efforts didn’t get us far.  But—I’m regaining enthusiasm for the cause.  Thanks Michael for your indefatigable efforts, and thanks Andrew Hacker and others for keeping the flame burning!!   Here’s the last paragraph of Baker’s superbly written and definitive essay.

“Math-intensive education hasn’t done much for Russia, as it turns out. But historical counter examples don’t seem to interest the latest generation of crisis-mongers. We’ve once again gotten ourselves caught up in a strangely self-destructive statistical cold war with other high-achieving countries.  The recruits are young teenagers, their ammunition the little bubbles on standardized tests. America’s technological future hinges, say the rigorists, on whether our student population can plug-and-chug the binomial theorem better than, say, Korean or Finnish or German or Chinese students. The childishness of this hyper nationalistic mentality depresses me, and I want it to end, and I am not alone..”

9 Responses

  1. Always nice to get a mention, particularly from someone like you, Deborah. The article is indeed great. One small proof: it already elicited a predictably narrow-minded retort from one of the great humbugs of the Math Wars, Wayne Bishop, who wrote in part, “I assume Nicholson Baker means for children from low socioeconomic and low education communities so that we maintain our national avoidance of (statistically speaking) upward mobility through education. We do need to maintain that important stratum of our society.”

    Yes, it’s the “liberal racism” strategy of which he and other self-appointed Math Warriors have been so fond for the last couple of decades. And it’s an enormous pile of the well-known substance, as my father used to say.

    • The article makes a great case against things that, for the most part, do not exist in the classroom. It’s written by the person who has no background in math/math education except, perhaps, his own childhood phobias that made him into a writer and have also turned millions of less fortunate individuals into minimum-wage workers.

      Imagine a North Korean journalist writing a critique of the US democracy – that’s what this “anti-math” article is. (It even has some valid points – as a hypothetical North Korean article probably would, too…)

      “Math-intensive education hasn’t done much for Russia, as it turns out.” – what a throw-away, useless, baseless sentence! For Russia, it enabled a very successful arm-race with the US despite being an economical wreck; for the countless Russian immigrants to the US and other countries, it made possible to acquire great STEM jobs and the spots at the top colleges… and it has also made the Russian community in the US one of the most prosperous ones.

      The article appears to be a support-group kind of thing: “You hate algebra? It’s NOT your fault – it’s algebra’s!” Please. Math literacy (next to parental income, of course) is what separates the upwardly-mobile from the rest.

      Please don’t call me a math warrior – I am simply a math-competent person who wants as many others as possible to be math-competent as well. (Personally, I think that, if everybody in the US understood math and basic stats, the GOP would never win an election.)

      • You are showing your ignorance of who you are responding to. Deborah Meier spent 30+ years as a teacher and director of public schools, pre-K through 12, having founded some of the most successful public schools in the nation. Contrary to your claim she has extensive first hand experience there. I know very few successful adults who use formal algebra in their daily lives, so therefore I too am confused as to why we use it as a gate keeper for allowing people entry into higher education. Far more professions and occupations call for skills in the arts, and yet we do not use that as a gatekeeper for anything in formal education.

      • I was responding to Baker’s article in Harper’s – not to Deborah Meier and not even to Michael Goldenberg. I am sorry it was not clear – although my reference to “his phobias” might have made it clear that I was not talking about Deborah Meier.

        The author (Baker) is simply helping math-phobic people justify their lack of mathematical literacy and their lack of respect for those who have it – that is, the vast majority of the nation. Calling this stand “courageous” is like calling courageous someone who calls for world peace at a Miss America contest.

        You wrote:
        “I know very few successful adults who use formal algebra in their daily lives” – that just speaks about the poor state of education in America and, perhaps, about your own choice of occupation and friends.

        You also wrote: “I too am confused as to why we use it as a gate keeper for allowing people entry into higher education.” – It’s kind of like reading and writing, you know… it’s not gate keeping, it’s a necessary background for anyone who wants to have better options in life and better-developed cognitive facilities.

        “Far more professions and occupations call for skills in the arts…” – I would LOVE to see the data that you base this statement on – rather than your gut and personal feelings.

      • I love your last sentence. I only wish that there were a simple correlation between knowing math/stats etc., and political wisdom. But oddly enough, the majority of the vocal, relentless opponents of progressive mathematics teaching and learning are conservatives in the political arena as well. There were two self-proclaimed “socialists” in Mathematically Correct (David Klein and Jerry Rosen), but I’m afraid that two swallows does not a spring make. Most of the other vocal members appear to be connected with the Fordham folks (not exactly a hotbed of Democrats, Socialists, or progressives of any sort, the American Enterprise Institute, and other right-wing think tanks and foundations, or else very closely allied with them and their views. As these are not high school dropouts, but rather engineers, mathematicians, and other folks who were successful in K-12 mathematics and beyond, they would seem to make your thesis more than a bit doubtful.

        And part of the reason that’s the case goes towards obviating an argument Baker touches upon and that many of these folks like to make: that if only everyone had a traditional geometry course (taught based on the axioms and then each theorem deduced and proved), that mathematical knowledge would make everyone into a more logical, incisive thinker. I can hardly think of a more self-serving, self-congratulatory pile of hooey.

        The fact of the matter is that we don’t teach mathematics in this country in ways that make it inviting, interesting, beautiful, or anything vaguely appealing to most kids, and in fact, there’s a tradition within its teaching that seems guaranteed to humiliate a significant number of people. From the “Pons asinorum” of Euclid” to the demeaning language that is all too commonplace in even elementary classrooms when students make mathematical errors, there’s this odd tone of separating the worthy from the unworthy, the bright from the dull, that clings to math teaching like nothing else in our K-12 curriculum.

        I think Baker gets that it need not be this way. I think he is using rhetorical methods to try to highlight how crazy things are, how the Common Core isn’t go to make things better, and how mechanistically the ever-clueless Arne Duncan mouths empty phrases about rigor and raising bars the meaning of which when it comes to mathematics or to children are utterly beyond his ken (and probably his concern as well).

        Anyone who loves mathematics and suffers with every anecdote or observation of child abuse in mathematics classes, as I have done in my career, has to applaud Baker for pointing out just how screwy American mathematics education is. I got to where I am despite, not because, of traditional instruction in mathematics, coming back to the subject in my 30s after avoiding it assiduously starting at age 16. I very much appreciate what Baker has written, his pointing to several excellent books which develop key points at length, and his bringing more attention to this important issue.

        Of course, as soon as I read the article, I knew he would come under attack. Pointing out naked emperors is never a popular activity amongst the ruler’s attendants and courtiers. However, a few with extraordinary courage will start to question the system and even speak out against it, even at the risk of losing favor and position. I suggest you reread Baker’s piece with the thought that he’s not anti-mathematics, but anti- bad mathematics education.

  2. Calculus is infinitely more useful than democracy. I say stop teaching democracy and start teaching calculus. What exactly can you do with democracy. Steal from the people who know Calculus! Lol.

    And they should probably start teaching Latin and Greek again. If you can’t read Euripides in the original Greek you probably shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

    • That would be funnier if you made it a tad more obvious that you’re joking. There are enough folks around who actually believe some or all of what you wrote that I don’t think it’s clear that you’re kidding.

  3. So, @physics teacher, you contend that Baker is talking about “things that for the most part do not exist in the classroom.” I’ve spent much of the last 22 years in K-12 classrooms observing mathematics teachers in various capacities (researcher, field supervisor, coach, etc.) and not only do the things Baker describes happen, they happen with alarming frequency.

    As a physics teacher, and someone from Russia, you are not likely to be well-positioned to comment in any sort of informed way on mathematics education in the United States. Did you attend K-12 here? Do you now teach K-12? Do you teach mathematics in K-12? If so, does that allow you to observe what goes on in other classrooms in K-12, and in how broad a range of school districts?

    I understand that you have strong feelings here, but Baker is not interested in helping people justify phobias. He may have some secondary interest in helping people understand that those phobias weren’t necessarily their fault. But my sense is that you would have little empathy for someone who didn’t take to mathematics like a duck to water. If I’m wrong, please correct me.

    You would not be the first Russian mathematics/science teacher I’ve met over the last 25 years or so. with a certain “attitude” towards American students and education. Russian mathematician Andre Toom wrote on this issue starting in the 1990s and was variously praised and condemned for his constant put-downs of “lazy” American students (based on his enormous experience with them teaching at Incarnate Word College, a low-tier institution in Texas, not exactly a place one would expect to find a host of hard-charging STEM students). His first major article on how awful American students are appears now at this link:

    A second from 2004, which was never published, appears here:

    It is far, far nastier. A visit to his current page on mathematics education includes three cartoons that he apparently believes sum up US students and education:

    I wrote a blog piece about Toom in 2007. I include the links to the articles above because the ones in my blog are now broken (I’ll endeavor to replace them, but no need to rely on that). My blog piece sums up my take on Toom, but I suspect he is not an isolated crank:

    Again, if I’m getting your viewpoint wrong, by all means correct my assumptions. And fill us in on your experiences in the US that would position you well to be familiar with what’s going on in K-12 math classrooms.

    But if perchance you’re simply talking loudly without anything to back up your claims, as I suspect, then you owe us an apology. I’m sure Mr. Baker won’t be upset in the least by what you’ve written, of course, but it would show a little humility on your part to offer one anyway.

    • Let’s see… I confess that I am a physics teacher, not a math teacher. But, hey, many of my friends are math teachers!
      I have been teaching in the US since 1992, at both private and public schools. I have an EdD from a top US ed. school (which, some may say, makes me less, not more, competent to make value judgments about the US education) and plenty of publications in the field of science education. I am certified to teach math, actually. I submit that I am certainly slightly more qualified than Mr. Baker to pass judgment on the US math education in general and Algebra II in particular. BTW, I consider Shakespeare in his “original language” obscure, boring and useless – but, fortunately, I have enough “humility” and shame not to broadcast my obvious lack of education and my inability to appreciate the classic literature written in antiquated English as a courageous and daring intellectual stand.

      My prediction is that the net effect of the article (whatever Mr. Baker may have intended it to be) will be a lot of people screaming: “Yeah. Algebra II sucks – let’s remove that requirement from the high-school curricula – who needs it anyway – I certainly don’t” Would you not agree that that will be the actual effect? As opposed to “How can we teach Algebra II better?”

      Look at the comment right here on this site (just scroll up): “I know very few successful adults who use formal algebra in their daily lives, so therefore I too am confused as to why we use it as a gate keeper for allowing people entry into higher education. Far more professions and occupations call for skills in the arts, and yet we do not use that as a gatekeeper for anything in formal education.” – now that’s exactly the kind of thing that the article encourages. Are you not worried about that?

      I don’t think Mr. Baker needs my apology. To him, I am just lowly teacher, a narrow-minded one, too. He’ll get enough pats on the back from his fellow writers. And then he’ll get into a car, turn on his iPad and head home, oblivious to the fact that without Algebra II he would have no car, no iPad and no home – and no Harper’s magazine, for that matter…

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