>>> Mark Bridger <email@example.com> 04/26/01 >>>
> Magliozzi's anti-math diatribe was certainly "Car Talk" --- > more specifically, exhaust. It was so stupid, unoriginal > and unimaginative that it really isn't worth listening to.
I don't agree.
A lot of what we (well, many of us, anyway,) do is teach calculus to students who really can't use it. Even children of MIT graduates like Magliotti sometimes turn out better suited to be shrinks, social workers, street musicians, web designers or stock brokers: all important members of today's economy who don't need calculus. The difference between Tom Magliotti and his fellow residents of Cambridge Mass is that he knows it, but they refuse to see it.
Some more questions from Socrates (Archimedes):
Why do so many parents want their kids to learn calculus?
Why do we accomodate them?
Why do kids have to learn algebra in grade 8 or earlier? It used to be necessary, because it took that long to get kids through the nuts and bolts of hand computation. But now? Is it not possible to take an intelligent adult human being from Algebra through Calc 3 in a little more than a year? Why not let the kids have some fun in grade school?
Why do all kids have to learn the same stuff? With this brave new world of technology, can't we let different kinds of students take different kinds of mathematics, and still have them all be rocket scientists by age 21?
If it no longer becomes *necessary* to teach kids algebra in grade 7, we *could* offer it as an option, sort of liberal arts algebra, where kids learn algebra for the sheer delight of it, not for practical reasons. then we can do some of that wonderful mindless symbolic manipulation (MSM) that list members so love to hate. If the pressure is taken off it, kids could learn to love it. As it is, it is a necessity to learn the algebra first, therefore there is pressure to take every "unnecessary" thing out of the algebra syllabus, so either (1) any idiot can get it, or (2) any average kid can get it fast.
I have made lots of assumptions about what kids like, what teachers like, what teachers think is necessary, and so on. OK, let's use any reasonable assumptions you want. My point is that the curriculum is pushed by forces that are not entirely understood by everyone, and not admitted by those who do understand it. There are politicians who need to get elected. There are parents who need to be able to point to their kids with pride. There are kids whose ideas of what is cool and interesting is based on hearsay. There are textbook manufacturers who need to get as many classes as they can doing the exact same thing, so they can make a profit.
Finally, here is an entertainer (well, a talk-show co-host) who's brave enough to say publicly that calculus is not for his kids. He's saying that we teach 50 million kids algebra so that 40 million of them can take geometry, so that 30 million of them can take trig, and about 500,000 of them take calculus, about 400,000 then take calc 2, and on and on, and about 5,000 of them actually use the stuff, the rest become talk-show hosts or what have you. I'm just making up the numbers, don't ask me for my sources.
Assume he's brave enought to weather the storm of ridicule that his kids will get from their classmates: "Jeeze, Tommy Jr, why didja sign up for calculus if it's too hard for your dad?" Will he be able to defend his position against the assault of other parents from his son's school district?
Will educators understand what he has done, or will they assume he is against calculus? He is FOR subjects that are immediately meaningful to kids in middle-school: humanities, arts, and AGAINST standard, mindless curricula that mandate algebra for all at the same time. I claim that we can manage perfectly well if students are presented algebra for the first time in grade 10 or 11. Learning calculus in college is not a setback. Lots of things can be done before then: Geometry (oh yes, there's lots of geometry that doesn't require algebra), logic, statistics (again, lots of statistics that can be done at a pre-algebra level, or the algebra for which can be done right in stats class. It won't be a conventional statistics course. Re-thinking will have to be done). Computer programming. (Why not? Who says algebra has to be a pre-requisite? Programming could motivate algebra beautifully, so that a kid could appreciate algebra by the time he gets to grade 11.)
It's time for the affluent society to get out of the subsistence- farming mindset. In a society where there's only one teacher per town, we have to let him or her teach as many kids the exact same thing as possible. But we've moved beyond that.
It is so sad that there is a huge number of students out there who have taken every conceivable subject in school, but know absolutely nothing. It is about them that Magliotti speaks, not the smal minority of kids who learn calculus well in high school and thrive on it. It is wrong to push a multitude through the "filter" of algebra and calculus so that a few precious drops can be harvested from the process. this is what NCTM and the AMS have been saying about calculus. There the emphasis is different: let's change calculus. Magliotti is saying: let's change the rules.
Mark >>> I'd advise people on this list not to bother: you've heard it all before ("schools never teach us anything useful"). Magliozzi really ought to know better than to think that calculus is just about finding tangents to, and areas under, curves. I'm disappointed in NPR for airing this drivel, but not surprised. >>>
Magliotti has made a point about the curriculum being too inflexible. Unfortunately, a flexible curriculum has implications in social stratification of students, with the less affluent being identified with the less able, and so on. But if we bear in mind that we can reduce the length of these long curricular "chains" algebra-> geometry -> trigonometry -> .... we can give Magliotti an intelligent answer: Yes, we can let your kid take algebra later, if he wishes, when he can take responsibility for choosing to take it. Nobody needs to learn stuff they don't *want* to learn, and certainly not calculus.