Solving The Nation's Math Problem

TO WIT

May 12, 1991|By Dave Barry

Last week I witnessed a chilling example of what U.S. Secretary of Education Arthur A. Tuberman was referring to in a recent speech when he said that, in terms of basic mathematics skills, the United States has become, and I quote, "a nation of stupids."

This incident occurred when my son and I were standing in linat Toys "R" Us. Our immediate goal was to purchase an item that my son really needed, called the Intruder Alert. This is a battery-operated surveillance device that can be placed at strategic locations around the house; it makes an irritating electronic shriek when you, the intruder, walk past. This important technological breakthrough enables the child to get on your nerves even when he is not home.

The woman ahead of us wanted to buy four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle drinks, which come in those little cardboard drink boxes that adults cannot operate without dribbling on themselves, but which small children can instinctively transform into either drinking containers or squirt guns. The Toys "R" Us price was three drinks for 99 cents, but the woman wanted to buy four drinks. So the mathematical problem was: How much should the cashier charge for the fourth box?

Talk about your brain teasers! The cashier tried staring intently at the fourth box for a while, as if maybe one of the Ninja Turtles would suddenly blurt out the answer, but that didn't work. Then she got on the horn and talked to somebody in Management "R" Us, but that person didn't know the answer, either. So the cashier made another phone call, and then another. By now I assumed she was talking to somebody in the highest echelon of the vast Toys "R" Us empire, some wealthy toy executive out on his giant yacht, which is powered by 176,485 "D" cell batteries (not included).

Finally, the cashier got the word: The fourth box should cost -- I am not making this up -- 29 cents.

This is, of course, ridicu- lous. As anyone with a basic grasp of mathematics can tell you, if three drinks cost 99 cents, then a fourth drink would cost, let's see, four boxes, divided by 99 cents, carry your six over here and put it on the dividend, and your answer is . . . OK, your answer is definitely not 29 cents.

And this is not an isolated incident of America's mathematical boneheadism. In a recent study done by the American Association of Recent Studies, 74 percent of U.S. high-school students -- nearly half -- were unable to solve the following problem:

"While traveling to their high-school graduation ceremony, Bill and Bob decide to fill their undershorts with Cheez Whiz. If Bill wears a size 32 brief and Bob wears a 40, and Cheez Whiz comes in an eight-ounce jar, how many times do you think these boys will have to repeat their senior year?"

Here is the ironic thing: America produces "smart" bombs, while Europe and Japan do not; yet our young people don't know the answers to test questions that are child's play for European and Japanese students. What should be done about this? The American Council of Mathematicians, after a lengthy study of this problem, recently proposed the following solution: "We tell Europe and Japan to give us the test answers, and if they don't, we drop the bombs on them."

Ha ha! Those mathematicians! Still bitter about not having prom dates! Seriously, though, this nation is a far cry from the America of the 1950s, when I was a student and we were No. 1 in math and science, constantly astounding the world with technical innovations such as color television, crunchy peanut butter and Sputnik. What was our secret? How did we learn so much?

The answer is that, back then, math was taught by what professional educators refer to as: the Noogie Method. At least this was the method used by Mr. O'Regan, a large man who taught me the times tables. Mr. O'Regan would stand directly behind you and yell: "Nine times seven!" And if you didn't state the answer immediately, Mr. O'Regan would give you a noogie. You can easily identify us former O'Regan students, because we have dents in our skulls large enough for chipmunks to nest in. Some of us also have facial tics: These were caused by algebra, which was taught by Mr. Schofield, using the Thrown Blackboard Eraser Method. But the point is that these systems worked: To this day, I can instantly remember that nine times seven is around 50.

It's good that I remember my math training, because I can help my son with his homework. He'll be sitting at the kitchen table, slaving over one of those horrible pages full of long-division problems, having trouble, and I'll say: "You know, Robert, this may seem difficult and boring now, but you're learning a skill that you'll probably never use again." If more parents would take the time to show this kind of concern, we Americans could "stand tall" again, instead of being a lazy, sloppy nation in which -- prepare to be shocked -- some newspaper columnists, rather than doing research, will simply make up the name of the secretary of education. *

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