Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

Make My Day

by Erik Deckers
American Reporter Humor Writer
Syracuse, Indiana

Printable version of this story

SYRACUSE, Ind. -- I hated math when I was a kid.

I thought it was stupid, and that anyone who was good at it was some sort of freak. I swore I would never use it, and refused to accept that math would actually help me when I got older.

So you can understand how frustrating this was to my father, a psychology professor who teaches upper-level statistics, or my stepfather, who scored in the top percentile on his high school math proficiencytests. When I was in the sixth grade, I could read at a high school senior reading level, but I couldn't reduce fractions to save my life. Even when I was in the fourth grade, I could read at a senior reading level, but was convinced I would never need long division. Surprisingly, I have used both of these more than a few times as an adult. What are the odds?

But I never took high school geometry, was frightened by the thought of trigonometry, and I would curl into a fetal ball whenever anyone mentioned calculus.

As a result, I was so bad at math that I had to take a preliminary math course in college before they would let me take regular college algebra. And I even managed to get a B.

So it's rather ironic when you consider that despite my earlier aversion to math, I use it all the time in my regular job. Among other things I sell building products to contractors. They tell me how big the project is, and I tell them what and how much they'll need, and how much it costs.

I've done this so often that I can do it in my head 70 percent of the time. The other 45 percent of the time, I need a calculator.

So why the big change? For one thing, this is real math. This isn't abstract, no-bearing-on-the-real-world math they teach in school. My high school math was no reflection of what I was going to do with my life, unless I became a math teacher, and no one could tell me why.

In algebra, no one could explain the importance of being able to "solve for X" in a problem like "x + 95 = 3x + 32" and showing every step of my work. It's not like it would save lives, make life easier for the elderly, or make me rich. Even 20 years later, being able to solve for X can't even get rid of that popping sound I get in my jaw when I eat something really chewy. I have never been in the middle of writing a marketing proposal and suddenly said, "Oh wow, if I solve for X right here, I could save the company thousands of dollars!"

I have never submitted a quote to a customer and only gotten part of the order "because you didn't show your work."

And I have never, ever had to answer the question "A train leaves Cleveland for Los Angeles traveling at 60 miles per hour. Another train leaves Los Angeles for Cleveland traveling at 70 miles per hour. At what time will the two trains collide in Oklahoma?"

I wish my math teachers had taught me something more useful to my everyday life instead.

"A truck carrying a big order to a very important customer leaves your warehouse for Sarasota, Fla., at 55 miles per hour and is scheduled to arrive in three days. How loud will you have to shout at the dispatcher to make him understand the damn thing is supposed to be there in two days?"

Even now, I'm not convinced that higher-level math is crucial to the everyday lives of ordinary people. But I could be wrong. It's entirely possible that math is even dangerous.

On the AlgebraHelp.com Website, they have an online equation calculator that students can use to check their work. This is supposed to be a study aide, and not a site that students would use to actually do their work, right?

AlgebraHelp.com proudly offers the latest version of their equation calculator, although they don't guarantee its accuracy. In a disclaimer they warn people who might use it: "Do not use this calculator in any way which may put people or property at risk."

I'm sorry, but people and property are not "put at risk" by incorrectly using an algebra calculator. This is algebra, not defusing bombs. "Oh my God, the answer was x = 37, but I put down x = 49, and Tiffany exploded!" AlgebraHelp.com will even show every step of the process they used, so you can check it against every step that you took to arrive at your answer. Of course, students would never copy this information for themselves, right? But what's the big deal about showing your work? Isn't getting the right answer more important than the process you took? Or are we saying that the process is just as important, if not more important, than the end result? What kind of message does it send to kids when they only receive partial credit for getting the right answer, but failed to use the same process the teacher showed them?

Fire Chief: Bruce, you rescued those 15 orphans and puppies from that burning building, but since you didn't use the map I drew for you, I'm afraid I'm going to have to dock your pay.

Firefighter Bruce: But Chief, I found five more orphans than we knew about. Fire Chief: I was very specific in my instructions, Bruce. If it happens again, you're fired.

I realize math is important and useful to our every day lives, second only to being able to read and write, but I still feel the usefulness of higher-level math has been artificially inflated in some giant math conspiracy, in an effort to make other extremely important skills useless in the day-to-day functioning of society.

Like being able to play French Horn in a medium-sized high school orchestra. I'm sure that's got to be useful somehow.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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