Friday, June 10, 2005

Capitalist Candy Bars

A conservative radio talk show host in Denver was having a canary over a politically correct textbook designed to teach math using stories of social injustice. (Link courtesy of Ann Althouse.)

VekTor reprints a sample from the text to show what I'm talking about:

For example: Let's say two teachers use word problems to teach double-digit multiplication and problem-solving skills. They each present a problem to their students. The first teacher presents this one:

A group of youth aged 14, 15, and 16 go to the store. Candy bars are on sale for 43ยข each. They buy a total of 12 candy bars. How much do they spend, not including tax?

The second teacher, meanwhile, offers a very different problem:

Factory workers aged 14, 15, and 16 in Honduras make McKids children's clothing for Wal-Mart. Each worker earns 43 cents an hour and works a 14-hour shift each day. How much does each worker make in one day, excluding fees deducted by employers?

While both problems are valid examples of applying multi-digit multiplication, each has more to say as well. The first example has a subtext of consumerism and unhealthy eating habits; the second has an explicit text of global awareness and empathy. Both are political, in that each highlights important social relations.

VekTor is steamed about this because it's inculcating "leftist values."

Me, I'm a Middle-ist, or according to the latest Pew study, a Communist. I take issue with the book for another reason. While it's never a bad idea for American kids to appreciate how good they've got it here as opposed to the "Children of Other Lands" who have to sew their fecockteh overpriced sneakers for them for pennies a day, making this a morality lesson in school is only going to make the kids feel guilty. When I was a teenager and adults were trying to lay a guilt trip on me, I'd rebel by doing just the thing they were afraid I would do.

Therefore, you can expect to see a backlash: Gangs of teenagers with a big piece of red meat in one hand and a cigar in the other, Rush Limbaugh blaring from their boom boxes, wearing the pelts of endangered species on their heads.

Let's face it: Those Children of Other Lands would be rabid little consumers in a minute, given our opportunities. They'd be going "To Hell with the Rainforest, gimme Nintendo! Bwah ha ha ha!" or whatever the equivalent is in their language for sounding like a villain in a melodrama.

I've never found morality and math to be a good mix. It reminds me of a bit that comedian Bill McCarty used to do about Catholic school. The nuns would ask:

"If Jeeee-sus has five loaves and two fishes, how many people can Jeeee-sus feed?' And the answer is, as many people as Jeeee-sus wants to! That's why most Catholics suck at math. That's why most accountants are Jewish.

Me, I didn't really learn math until my first babysitting job, $1.00 in multiples of hours and half-hours. I added to this knowledge with my first real, wage-earning afterschool job at Alexander's on Queens Boulevard, where I multiplied the minimum wage for 1971, and learned percentages and subtraction through my employee discounts. Then when I was temping in the '80s, we had to round every billable hour to the nearest tenth of a decimal point.

And then in 2001, the job I was doing got outsourced to Children of Other Lands.

The heart of my objection is not that the indoctrination is leftist. Instead, I fundamentally object to using a captive-audience setting of a mandatory class to indoctrinate students in ANY KIND of political or religious ideology.

Sure, it bothers me a bit more that the indoctrination in question is leftist, but that's simply because I'm not trying to raise my two daughters to be leftists. That's a person-specific objection, though, and really only accounts for a minor portion of my outrage at this.

The heart of the matter is the attitude of some teachers that they should be using a mandatory class to push their own personal political agenda onto students. Regardless of the specifics of that agenda, you can more-or-less guarantee that you're going to be treading on someone else's toes.

That's why I think the whole concept is complete garbage. Mathematics is a wonderful subject in my opinion, and gives a great opportunity to teach things that are true for everyone. It's a great equalizer, and cuts across religious and political lines. e and pi don't take on different values depending on your ideology, after all.

Leftists and right-wingers can both see the beauty in understanding the Golden Ratio. Algebra works the same for Jews and Gentiles. There's no good reason IMO to take something pure and pollute it with politics or religion.
VekTor, thanks for responding!

I agree with you about the "captive-audience" setting. Educators have a choice in how they're going to teach a subject, but if you're a kid, depending on how old a kid you are, you don't have much of a choice about the circumstances in which you're going to learn it.

If you're old enough to sense that you're being indoctrinated, and you're uneasy over it, you can act out, rebel, cut class or be a clown--none of which are conducive to getting a good education. And no matter how hip you think you are to being "brainwashed," some of the indoctrination will still leak through in ways you may not even notice until years later.

As far as the beauty of mathematics, I've always envied those people who loved math for the clarity and certainty of it, the way some people envy people with perfect pitch.

The only thing I've experienced that comes close to this is learning grammar or drawing, where you learn the rules before you put your own interpretation on things. But ultimately, you're still putting your interpretation on things.

Whereas, someone practicing "creative accounting" is basically just a crook.
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