When our 10-year old son comes to me for help with a math problem, I feel empowered. He’ll sidle up next to me, explain the problem, and then we’ll sit there together and solve it.
I love feeling like a hero. I love when he looks at me with amazement because I’m SO smart. And I love that he’s in absolute awe at my ability to swiftly determine just how many more apples Jane has in her basket than Bobby.
Believe me, the moment when you realize that everything is clicking in your child’s brain because of your tutoring is one of the seldom-publicized wonderments of parenthood.
Unlike the moment when your 16-year old realizes that you’re about as useful as the family cat when it comes to helping him solve his math problems.
For my father, helping us kids with math problems was easy. He majored in Mathematics at Ohio University and has always had an adept mind when it comes to working with numbers and using fancy symbols to do all kinds of manipulative things with them.
I could always sense that he was frustrated having to explain Algebra to me when I was in high school, but I think that’s because Algebra and Pre-Calculus were beneath him. Our conversations over an opened math book would typically go like this:
Me: “I’m totally not getting this. It says to ‘Compute the variance and standard deviation of the data 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9.’”
Dad: “Right. Okay. Well, we already know that the variance is equal to the mean of the squares of the deviations from x infinity, right?”
Me: “We do?”
Dad (continuing): “And that the standard deviation, as denoted by a symbol you’ll never again see in your lifetime is equal to the positive square root of the variance, right?”
Me (eyes glazing over): “Uh…”
Dad (not looking up): “So, since x infinity is the base of an integer, we’ll take the binomial coefficient and divide it by the convergent root square of the squiggly backwards E. Using a method you won’t learn until your senior year at college and a technique best left defined by Statistics 501, we can clearly see that the correlation coefficient for the data set would be the square root of 1.6847. I really don’t understand how you’re not following this. What’s the problem?”
Me: “Well, apparently the problem is that I’m a complete dumbass, Dad.”
I’ll admit that his assistance always led to correct answers, I just never understood how. It’s hard to grasp how to do something when you don’t even understand the words being used to describe a solution you weren’t even aware was given yet. So when he’d conclude one of his mathematic filibusters with “…and there’s your answer,” I’d always nod my head and say, “Ahhhh, okay,” and then make plans to repeat high school.
The reason I can still help Michael is because the questions he’s given are true life scenarios. Bobby and Jane each have some apples. Jane wants to have more apples than Bobby. So they come to some sort of arrangement and then you’re supposed to figure out the new tally.
But when Andrew set his Advanced Math book down in front of me the other night, my first thought was that he was studying Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
These aren’t math problems. They’re random arrangements of some foreign alphabet combined with unrecognizable symbols and funky text alignments. I can’t even comprehend the questions well enough to determine what in the world they want to know.
I know I’m not supposed to say this, but as my brain recoiled to find its happy place, I sputtered, “Why in the world do you have to know this? I mean, when will you EVER have to use this in real life?”
“I dunno. What if I write a math book someday?”
Ugh. The world has enough misery.
I realize they print these books in the off chance someone actually plans on using this kind of math, but for those not pursuing a career in time travel or wormholes, I think the Department of Education should establish what I call the “Plateau of Mathematical Learning.”
The way PML would work is simple. Depending on your major or anticipated career, you would be allowed to tap yourself out of math class once you’ve crossed the threshold of knowing everything you’ll ever need to know about working in that field. This would enable children to devote more time to relevant and applicable studies rather than a bunch of equations they’ll never again see in life unless they have kids of their own.
For example, someone pursuing a career in Accounting would have a far higher PML than someone who wanted to, say, be an author. Perhaps the following chart can help you visualize what I mean:
I’m 41 years old and I have yet to have the situation arise where I was expected to know or apply anything beyond the basic core of mathematics: Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide, and Guess.
I’m sure there are people reading this who clearly see the point of being able to comprehend and explain the Axioms of Equality with sines and cosines and funked-out symbols, but I don’t. Why? Because I don’t have to. And I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it stays that way.
I believe that once someone is capable of splitting a restaurant check without a calculator that they should be excused from learning additional math unless their life or someone else’s life hangs in the balance. And I say this with the complete understanding that I may eventually hear this conversation go down while I’m strapped to a gurney one day:
Doctor: “Sigh. I’m totally not getting this. I don’t know how to save him!”
Nurse: “Right, okay. Well, we already know that in order to save his life we need to know the Rhomboidal vector of his heart’s polar axis as based on the coflaguration of his artery’s hyperbolic trigonometric function.”
Doctor: “We do?”
Nurse (continuing): “And that the Rhomboidal vector is equal to the square root of pi minus his systolic blood pressure, right?”
Doctor (eyes glazing over): “Uh…”
Nurse (not looking up): “Never mind, Doctor. He’s dead.”
Doctor: “Yes, yes. I’m no longer seeing the squiggly lines on the monitor.”
Think about it this way. If the majority of humans were supposed to know how to do all this stuff then wouldn’t our computer keyboards display these functions? Personally, I think my computer would blow up if I asked it to solve these problems. And if my computer can’t do it, how on earth does my son expect me to be able to do it?
So when Andrew walked downstairs again today and asked, “Dad, can you help me with this math problem?”, I simply replied:
“Does it involve fruit?”
“Sorry, pal. Can’t help you.”