Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Dave Barry on the state of education in America

Barry's latest "back to school column."

I have here a letter, which I am not making up, from a teacher named Robin Walden of Kilgore, Texas, who states:

"I teach math to eighth-grade students. This is an unnecessary task because they are all going to be professional basketball players, professional NASCAR race-car drivers, professional bass fisher people, or marine biologists who will never need to actually use math."

This is a sad commentary on the unrealistic expectations of today's students. Because the harsh statistical truth is that, in any given group of 10 young people, only a third of them, or 22 percent, will actually succeed as professional bass fishers. The rest will wind up in the real world, where, like it or not, they will need a practical knowledge of math.

For example, I recently found myself in a situation at a bank where suddenly, without warning, I had to add up four three-digit numbers by hand. Fortunately, I went to elementary school in the 1950s, when we were in the Cold War, and American children were forced to learn addition, because the Russians were making their children learn addition. Thanks to that training, I knew that, to get the correct answer, I had to carry some numbers.

Unfortunately, I could not remember how to do this.

For some reason I could remember that pi is the ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle, but that did not help me in this case. (To be honest, it has never helped me.) But addition had leaked out of my brain, along with subtraction, multiplication, long division, the cosine, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff and most of the other things I learned in school, although of course my brain has carefully preserved the following jingle for Brylcreem hair ointment:

"Brylcreem, a little dab'll do ya. Brylcreem, you'll look so debonair. But watch out, the gals'll all pursue ya. They'll love to get their fingers in your hair!" Which is a total lie: Touching Brylcreemed hair is like sticking your hand into the nostril of a sick pig.

Thanks to Joanne Jacobs, who still has the best education coverage.

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