Sunday, September 06, 2009

Back to School Fun (but serious too)

Who can do the math?
BY DAVE BARRY
(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Aug. 17, 2003.)

We have come to the time of year when we remove the video-game controls-by surgery, if necessary-from the hands of our children, and send them back to school. And if they complain that school is a boring waste of time, we smack them firmly yet lovingly with a roofing timber and remind them of the words of our first president, Benjamin Franklin, who said: ``There is nothing more valuable in life than an education, except, of course, money or a nice car.''

Knowledge is our nation's most precious resource, after agriculture and Ray Charles. Yet study after study shows that American children are not learning as well as children from foreign countries such as Sweden and Hawaii. On standardized tests, most American 12th-graders are unable to correctly answer such basic academic questions as:

1. When you wear a baseball-style cap, which part is supposed to go in the front?

2. What is the difference between ``hip-hop'' and ``music''?

3. Who is Dick Cheney?

(ANSWERS: 1. The front part. 2. Plenty. 3. None of your business.)

Why do our children perform so poorly on standardized tests? Does the fault lie with our teachers? With our school administrators? With our political leaders? Can we, as concerned parents, sue somebody about this and obtain millions of dollars?

Or maybe it's time that we parents stopped ``passing the buck'' on education. Maybe instead of ``pointing the finger'' at everybody else, we should take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror, and place the blame for our children's lousy test scores where it clearly belongs: on our children. They have a terrible attitude. I have here a letter, which I am not making up, from a teacher named Robin Walden of Kilgore, Texas, who states:

``I teach math to eighth-grade students. This is an unnecessary task because they are all going to be professional basketball players, professional NASCAR racecar drivers, professional bass fisher people or marine biologists who will never need to actually use math.''

This is a sad commentary on the unrealistic expectations of today's students. Because the harsh statistical truth is that, in any given group of 10 young people, only a third of them, or 22 percent, will actually succeed as professional bass fishers. The rest will wind up in the ``real world,'' where, like it or not, they will need a practical knowledge of math.

For example, I recently found myself in a situation at a bank where suddenly, without warning, I had to add up four three-digit numbers by hand. Fortunately, I went to elementary school in the 1950s, when we were in the Cold War, and American children were forced to learn addition, because the Russians were making THEIR children learn addition. Thanks to that training, I knew that, to get the correct answer, I had to ``carry'' some numbers. Unfortunately, I could not remember how to do this.

For some reason I COULD remember that ``pi'' is the ratio of circumference to diameter, but that did not help me in this case. (To be honest, it has never helped me.) But addition had leaked out of my brain, along with subtraction, multiplication, long division, the ``cosine,'' the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, and most of the other things I learned in school, although, of course, my brain has carefully preserved the jingle for Brylcreem hair ointment:

``Brylcreem, a little dab'll do ya/Brylcreem, you'll look so debonair/ But watch out, the gals'll all pursue ya/ They'll love to get their fingers in your hair!'' Which is a total lie: Touching Brylcreemed hair is like sticking your hand into the nostril of a sick pig.

But I digress. My point is that I finally gave up on adding my numbers and asked the bank teller, who added them with a calculator, which uses computer chips, which were invented during the Cold War, which we won. I'm not saying this was TOTALLY because of my mathematics training; I'm just saying it was a factor. And that is why we must stress to our children how important education is. We must tell them: Study hard! Learn as much as you can! Because we, your parents, are getting stupider by the day. We're experiencing massive brain leakage. Soon even the commercial jingles will be gone, and our heads will actually implode.

Before that happens, we need to get out of the driver's seat, and turn the wheel over to you, the younger generation.

Don't ask us what we did with the car keys.

(c) 2009, Dave Barry

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