The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘math’


Mea culpa – I confess it.  I love math.  I’ve always loved math.  It comes very naturally to me and I revel in its precision.  I guess it’s for the same reason that I enjoy crosswords and jigsaw puzzles and those games where you have to get from point A to point B by drawing a line through a maze without running into the barricades while en route.  When you get the right answer or complete the puzzle, you have the reward of knowing that you accomplished something.

So here’s a math-ish question for you.  Now before I state the question, you might be thinking that I read this on a five hour flight and who is seated next to me but a man who spilled half a bottle of Gaucho Boy Cologne (primary ingredient being horse sweat).  So I picked up the In Flight magazine to see if there are any ads or stories which pique my interest – but primarily I am going to use the magazine to fan myself to keep the cologne odor as dispersed as possible.

I turn to page 33 and this is the question.

“You and some friends have gone out to dinner.  You are extremely happy both with the food and the service your pleasant server provided.  The bill comes to $200.00.  What would be a good (my italics) tip to leave your server?”

Answers (Multiple choice, of course):

A:  15%

B:  20%

C.  25%

D.  50%

Frankly, that is just the kind of question that I might expect to find in an In Flight magazine.  But that is not where I read it.

That question appears in a seventh grade “math” book that is currently in use in the Las Vegas School District.  One of the children in the neighborhood was carrying this text home from school.  As a matter of curiosity I asked her if I might take a look at it.  In flipping through the pages this question caught my eye and as that was the last day of the school year, I asked if she would lend the book to me overnight, which she did.

If you remember my opening paragraphs, I enjoy math because it is precise.  There is a right answer and every other answer is incorrect.  There is absolutely nothing that is precise about this “math” question as it merely asks for a value judgment.  In fact, other than the fact that there is an amount stated for the bill and various percentages are given as potentials to be applied to that bill for the tip, there is nothing mathematical in the question.  The children are not asked to compute a tip amount – perhaps because the question assumes that their calculators or smart phones will always return the “correct” answer once the multiplier is input.

This was not the only such question in this textbook.  So I wondered who wrote this piece of garbage.  Only mildly to my surprise, one of the contributors to the book was the “Education Committee of the S. E. I. U.”  If you don’t know what those initials mean, they stand for the Service Employees International Union.  Parenthetically, that union represents, among other people, restaurant servers.

So here’s my take on the whole thing.  We have one union (S.E.I.U.) writing questions which it supplies to another union (The Teachers’ Union) which, of course, accepts them.  The question serves more to the benefit of propaganda than it does to the mathematics purportedly being taught in the book.  This seems not to bother members of either union.  If there’s no such term as crony-unionism, I think I’ll just coin it now.

The kids get brain-washed into an agenda which benefits members of the S.E.I.U. (notice that the lowest answer given is what most people accept as a normal tip) and the Teachers Union member who is instructing the class doesn’t really have to bother grading any papers since it would be hard to argue that any of these answers was either correct or incorrect.

And that’s education in America today.  It certainly adds fire to the argument in favor either of private or home schooling.

“In the first place God made idiots.  That was for practice.  Then he made school boards.”  – Mark Twain


I try to minimize the amount of time and gas that I use during my weekly grocery shopping trips. As it happened, because I had taken advantage of sale items in previous weeks, the pantry and freezer were pretty well stocked. I just needed to get two items for the laundry room.

I went to my local supermarket, quickly found them and headed to the checkout. I normally prefer using the self-checkout aisles as I find it faster, but yesterday all of the machines were in use and there was a long line behind the customers who were waving their purchases over the scanners.

 I happened to notice there was a cashier who was open and no one was in her line. Quickly I dashed over and set my two items on the conveyor.

When I picked up my purchases I noted that they totaled $9.99. I quickly computed an additional $.81 based on our lofty sales tax rate and had put the total purchase price of $10.80 in my jacket so that I could feed it into the machine and make my getaway as quickly as possible. Now I would just hand it to this young lady instead.

She greeted me in a very friendly manner, scanned my two items and announced that I owed the store $10.80. I reached in my jacket, pulled out the money and said, “There you are – $10.80 on the nose.”

She really looked surprised and said, “Wow, you’re good. How did you know that was the amount you owed?”

I explained that I had added the prices of the two items as I was walking to the checkout and then computed the sales tax based on our 8.1% rate, added that to the sub-total and bingo – that’s how I knew what my total was going to be.

I really expected her to say something like, “Boy, I wish I were good at math like that” or, “You must be a math whiz.”

Instead she said, “Oh, 8.1%. Is that what our sales tax rate is?”

I politely asked, “Didn’t you know that?”

No”, she said, “the machine figures that out. All I do is push the button.”

Perhaps one day the definitive book on the legacy of our technological age will be written. It will be brief – which is as well as there will be few who will still be able to read. I suspect that it will be entitled,



“Education is not a preparation for life;education is life itself.” (Attributed to John Dewey).

I am fortunate to have grown up at a time before the multiple choice exam became the norm.  In the early years of grammar school we were given arithmetic questions to solve.  We were expected to compute the answer.  We were expected to know the dates of significant historic events.  We memorized those dates and created hand-drawn “time line maps” to trace historical events.

Most importantly, I was not taught “what” to think but “how” to think.  I learned how to approach a problem, consider the various ways to solve it and to come up with an answer.  This ability has benefited me over many years.

I thought about this yesterday as my dog, Gracie and I sat in our little park enjoying the 50 degree fall weather.  Several of the kids in the neighborhood came to the park to play.  One little girl came over to pet Gracie and I asked her how things were going in school.  She said, “Fine.”

I asked her what her favorite subject was and she said, “Math.”  I was delighted as I have had a life-long love affair with math.  So I asked, “What are you doing in your math class?”  She said, “Multiplication.”

So I said, “Can you tell me what 9 x 7 is?”

I was startled when she reached in her book bag – pulled out her calculator and said “63.”  Actually, I think the word I’m looking for was “shocked”.

I asked her if she could have figured that out on her own – without using the calculator.

She looked at me as if I were moderately insane.  Her response amazed me.  She said, “Why would I have to figure that out on my own when I can use the calculator and get the right answer?”

I guess this is what today passes for what I call “edjumication.”  And I can’t help but wonder – what would these children do if all the batteries on earth suddenly disappeared?


I remember that as an elementary school student I always felt a little odd. Most of my classmates hated our math classes. I, on the other hand, looked forward to them. To me, math was the perfect class. There was always a “right” answer to the questions – and that gave me a sense of security – knowing that I could be correct if I merely solved the problem. I loved math – and that love has served me well over many years.

When I began math classes (more correctly I should call them arithmetic) I remember my parents made me write the numbers 1 – 9 across the top and down the side of my piece of paper. Then I had to draw lines on my paper so that I had created a grid. And then I had to fill in the values in the grid using multiplication. 1 x 1 = 1; 7 x 6 = 42, etc. I learned all these values by heart – and because of that basic introduction to multiplication, I can still compute without benefit of a calculator – and a lot faster than people who have to resort to the use of one.

The importance of being able to do math was recently re-inforced at a recent visit to the local grocery store.

I was shopping for some chicken broth and had decided to try the type that comes in a carton in order to compare it to the canned variety. As I went down the soup aisle, I found that a woman and her daughter were standing in front of the item I was looking to purchase.

While they debated over which brand of boxed chicken stock they would purchase, I noticed that the brand they were considering was priced at $3.39 for the 32 oz. version and $1.98 for the 16 oz. version of the same product – making the 32 oz. variety the more economical. Except that the store had a sale on the smaller version with $.50 off its cost making it only $1.48 or $2.96 for two – the same quantity as its bigger brother.

I needed to purchase 32 ounces for the recipe I was making so I had decided that when this woman had nade her selection, I would buy two of the smaller sized stock and save $.43 on my purchase rather than buying the larger version – which under normal circumstances would have been more economical.

The lady (who apparently also needed 32 ounces for her recipe) reached for the larger box – apparently unaware of the sale that was going on. So – in my friendly way, I said, “Excuse me – I don’t know if you noticed but the smaller size is on sale and it would actually be less expensive if you bought two of the small size rather than buying the large size).

Her response was, “I always buy the large size. I need that much for the recipe.”

I went on to explain that two of the small size was the same as the large size and that she could save $.43 by buying the same quantity – just in two separate contiainers.

She looked at me as though I were insane, put her large size container in her shopping cart and she and her daughter moved on.

I just shook my head. I figured that she missed a lot of math classes – or was simply unclear on the concept. So I concluded my purchase and left the store.

This should probably not surprise any of us.

If you believe the reports that those people who are “underwater” on their mortgages and have stopped making payments on them simply didn’t understand what they were signing or the implications of adjustable rates – why should we be surprised that people don’t care enough – or understand enough – to maximize the dollars that they spend at the grocery store? 

Right now there is much talk about how the banks are “dragging their heels” on re-financing mortgages. Congress has put forward several proposals to accelerate this process. None of these seems to be effective in solving our housing valuation crisis. Is there any surprise in all of this?

I can only surmise that with math skills at all time lows, not only have the borrowers missed a lot of basic math classes – but our legislators have as well.

In this context – “JUST DO THE MATH” takes on a whole new relevancy.

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