The other day, I saw this picture followed by a lot of negative comments about American education, including, “We didn’t do this and we turned out good (sic).” (it should be well, an adverb modifying “turned out”, and exactly how well did you turn out?)

What do you think?


I looked at the picture and commented this is how I do mental subtraction.  A different example:  What is 427-78?  Can you do that mentally by “borrowing”? Perhaps, but with difficulty.   Here is how the above would work: They begin with the premise that subtraction is the difference between one number and another.  To get from 78 to 427, one adds 2 to get to 80, 20 more to get to 100 (22 so far), 300 more to get to 400 (322 so far) and 27 more to get to 427 (349, the answer).  I do that mentally.  I follow a basic mathematical principle:  I TURN ONE PROBLEM INTO SEVERAL SIMPLER PROBLEMS.  It is easier to add than to subtract.  I happen to go from 78 to 100 directly (22), add 327 (349) and am done.

If I do it mentally, I may also subtract 100 from 427 and add back 22.  I can subtract 78 by subtracting 100 (easy) and adding 22 (easy).

The other part of the complaint was that this is how children are learning subtraction.  Yes, but this is the “counting up method,” not the only way to subtract.  I suspect there are other methods taught.  Some children might want to use the borrowing approach; others might want to use the counting up method.  The fact I do it mentally by counting up suggests perhaps my way is easier.  It wasn’t taught back then.

I was disturbed by a comment that said, “I just want my kid to be on a horse and learn his ‘ABC’s’ .”  That isn’t going to cut it in the 21st century.  Math is everywhere; failure to understand math and science, where math is used extensively, will destroy the competitiveness of this country faster than illegal immigration, jihads, and even overpopulation, itself a math issue.  Want to ride the range?  You need to know cost of fencing and feed, cattle price per pound, per cent loss of herd, weather forecast interpretation, taxes, and transportation costs.

The doubling time for money/debt is 72/rate of interest in per cent.  This is a basic rule that everybody should know, but few do.  Borrow money on a credit card?  Invest the money you make ranching?  Need math.*

I could continue with dozens of examples of what needs to be learned by many who weighed in negatively on the above.  We need students to have an open mind and be good critical thinkers.  Most of the comments were poorly written by native speakers.  Good writing matters in the 21st century, as it always has.  Children need to learn how to write and the ability to discern the validity of information on the Internet.  Anecdotes, photoshopped pictures, astrology, and weird notions about the body abound.  California’s water crisis?  Blame it on the silver smelt, rather than poor conservation, limited rainwater harvesting, growing crops where they shouldn’t be grown, climate change, lack of water meters, not making fixing leaks a priority, allowing golf courses in the desert, 30 minute showers, brushing teeth with the faucet on, and not charging what water is truly worth.

Pray for rain?  That is silly.

A problem is I have just used 49 words to summarize, and not completely, the water crisis.  I would need several hundred more to give specific facts on water use for Fresno vs. Tucson, what is going on in the Colorado River Basin, and how much water usage occurs for things we want.  People want “the bottom line”; they are busy.  Just tell them “it’s a damn fish,” and it is all over Facebook with ten thousand likes.

Lack of critical thinking means 2-5 word simplistic solutions influence many: “boots on the ground,” “damned liberals,” “tree huggers,” “climate change is a hoax,” “drones will work,” “less government.”  We live in an extremely complex world; the ability to deal with multiple conflicting issues and make sense out of them is desperately needed in society today.  Do we arm rebels who may some day use the arms against us?  Do we understand that Kurdistan may want to be its own nation in return for helping?  Do we understand that carving out Kurdistan will impact at least 5 other nations?  How many Americans even know roughly where Kurdistan is?  Think defeating ISIS is difficult?  What happens if Hong Kong blows up now? The Ukraine and Gaza?  What about Ebola in the US?  How are we going to deal with extreme weather statistically likely to be due to climate change?  Congress ought to be in permanent session, looking for solutions with the president, doing the country’s work.

Unfortunately, it is getting worse.

America is in trouble when in 2014 we still have climate change debates, Bill Nye the Science Guy is debating the Earth’s age with a creationist, a third of Americans believe in astrology, three-quarters of adults don’t know why we have seasons, 9th graders in one school couldn’t divide 3 into 12 without using a calculator, writing skills have deteriorated, not one high school senior I asked while teaching knew the approximate size of an acre (so how do we teach an acre foot of water?), and a MATH TEACHER could not prove why Celsius=Fahrenheit at minus 40.

I taught English to a 23 year-old woman from Kurdistan, an engineer, who wants my advice whether her government-funded Master’s abroad should be in England or the US.  She is going beyond the ABCs and riding a horse. Europeans are moving ahead on renewable energy; we still are basically stuck on oil.

We will hang on for a while.  We have good universities with a lot of smart, young students in them, and we still have an innovative culture.  Unfortunately, we have tens of millions of students who are not doing well; educational debt and lack of skills will hurt our ability to compete.  Riding the range isn’t going to fund retirement.

I know how to subtract.  I saw immediately what the page showed.  The person who posted it could not, and that disturbed me.  Comments discussing past bad teachers, sympathy that kids today have to learn this awful stuff, and how bad the educational system is speaks to a culture gone awry.  Yes awry.  We are destroying public education then blaming it for failing.  We are creating for-profit charter schools, doing home schooling, where too many parents think they can teach their children or other children, and we disparage science and math, even as the former has allowed me to survive this long to write and the latter has been the foundation of my entire life.

By the way, the tripling time of money is 110/interest rate, 3 strokes on a calculator, although I assume people can divide 8 into 110.  Let’s see: 80 is 10 “8”s, 24 is three more, so 104=13 “8”s.  So it is 13 6/8 years, or 13 3/4 years.  Those who don’t learn math are going to face a world with a lot of locked doors.  Don’t blame me when you retire, poor.  I won’t be around, and it won’t be my fault.  I tried.

How did I turn out?  You decide. I couldn’t compete against the charismatic charlatans who told you what you wanted to hear, rather than what you needed to hear, but that didn’t make me less right.

*The Rule of 72: P=Principal at the end; Po=Principal at the beginning. P=Po exp(rt);  P/Po=exp (rt) and ln(P/Po)=rt.  When P is twice Po, ln (2)=rt; ln 2=0.693.  Change the interest from 0.08 (for example) to 8%, and 69.3=rt.  But 72 is an easier number to use, because it is divisible by so many other numbers, and we use it here.  All one needs to know is that 72/24=3, and the doubling time of credit card debt at 24% interest is 3 years.  The question that concerns me is whether people can divide 24 into 72 in their heads.  They should; it is the number of hours in 3 days.

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