On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse confronts the challenge of basic math education: “we need to find a balance between hammering the basic skills, while also making it clear that there is so much more to mathematics than arithmetic.” Rosenhouse rejects the approach of New Math, “teaching grade-schoolers about set theory and the axiomatic method,” instituted briefly in the U.S. after the Soviets launched a giant ball bearing named Sputnik into orbit. Rosenhouse goes on to question whether teachers should emphasize experimental mathematics, wherein the brute force of computation is used to identify overarching laws and properties. And in a third post, Rosenhouse explores strategies for making introductory calculus less boring for undergrads. He writes, “Some rigor must be sacrificed to do what I am suggesting. I have no problem with that. For beginning students, rigor is often the enemy of clarity.” Finally, on The Pump Handle, Elizabeth Grossman breaks out the calculator to determine what kind of living is possible on a full-time Wal-Mart wage. A single parent with a child, living in a relatively low-cost area, after paying for rent, utilities, food, public transportation, and income tax, would have about $5 a day left over to pay for child care, internet service, health insurance, clothing, toiletries, further education, a 401k contribution, and anything else. Grossman concludes, “This is the the kind of challenge facing at least half of Walmart’s 1.3 million US employees.”
In our capitalist, conspicuously consumptive, greedily go-getting society, teaching has always been disrespected as a vocational pursuit. They quip “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Meanwhile the public education system in the United States suffers from neglect, indifference, and outright enmity. The most powerful nation on Earth can only claim to be mediocre when it comes to educating its children.
This is partly traced to the quintessential American attitude of self-reliance, which reacts to any public service with skepticism and distaste. Charter schools, private schools, and home-schooling all claim to improve on public curricula that may not be good enough or spiritually suitable for your child. The successful high-school or college dropout is especially venerated, upheld as an archetype of self-sufficiency and proof that all those physics formulae and copies of The Catcher in the Rye contribute nothing to an individual’s chance for success.
Although British, Pink Floyd said it up best. “We don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control.” Although we might benefit from a refresher on the basic tenets of grammar.
Meanwhile, Christian fervor permeates American awareness, and many hold Christ the Savior in the highest regard. The church says that not only does Christ forgive our sins, he will also return to Earth one day to right all wrongs. The idea that Christ or another messiah is overdue to save humanity diminishes our own responsibility to make the world a better place. Because there are no saviors, nor were there ever; there have only been men and women occasionally motivated to do or say something constructive.
Many pretenders have aspired to the role of savior since Jesus died on the cross, assuming the title of Christ or believing themselves to be his reincarnation. The problem with thinking of yourself as a savior is that it defines you as exceptional, inhuman, infallible, and superior. But when you think of yourself as a teacher, you are immediately humbled, made subservient to the interests of youth and inexperience, contributing whatever you can to the imperfect, cumulative development of future generations. You don’t necessarily need a chalkboard or a classroom. You only need to share your knowledge as best you can, and be open to the knowledge shared with you in return.
If we looked to a teacher instead of a savior, our lowest social ideal would become our highest. And in a world abruptly faced with the drastic consequences of its history, we need teachers more than ever.