Friday, December 30, 2016

Anger: Andrew Hacker Illuminates

Sitting with the head of the board of trustees of the Sidwell Friends School, decades ago, I listened as the parent of one of the students, opined about what makes a school truly elite. "The worst thing Boston Latin ever did was to abandon the requirement that every student master calculus. The place was never the same." This parent was a well known lawyer in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Hacker

Speaking with a Dean at Vanderbilt University about my son, who was struggling to get past calculus as a freshman, I mentioned the last time I ever used calculus, which was required in my day to get into medical school, was on the final exam. "Oh," the Dean said, "But math is the language of science. You need calculus."  I asked him what his academic training was. He had a PhD in Anthropology. (That particular student managed to squeak by calculus and got into Columbia P&S, a pretty elite medical school, and he went on to be a vascular surgeon without ever mastering polynomials or any math higher than arithmetic and the few bits of algebra which allow you to calculate doses of drugs per/ml, something the calculators and computers now do for you.)

Listening to an electrician's apprentice in Haverhill,  I learned he had worked with his electrician sponsor for six years but could not get licensed in the state of Massachusetts because he could not pass the math portions of the electricians' licensing exam.
"What sort of math do you need to know to be an electrician?" I asked him.
"Damned if I know," he said. "Whatever it is, I don't know it."
"But," I asked. "When you are doing your work every day, do you use math?
"Nothing like what's on the exam."
Andrew Hacker

There are many malign sources of injustice in life. 
Looking at depictions of the 20th century, where injustices occurred in Army life where privates slept in the mud and officers slept indoors, and there were nasty injustices where Nazis seized property and sent Jews off to concentration camps, where Sophie had to make her choice.
One gets a sense of big, horrible injustice versus smaller, but still important injustices, like who gets to travel the road toward greater financial security and a more comfortable place in the higher strata of society.

Howard Zinn wrote of injustice in the South as it occurred in a society in which White males kept Negroes from voting, from getting good jobs, from getting a good education. Those were very serious injustices.
Howard Zinn

And he wrote about the bosses, people like Carnegie and Mellon hiring thugs to break the heads of union leaders trying to organize labor. Those were nasty, brutal forms of injustice.

But an injustice doesn't have to be racist or thuggish to be serious or to engender anger and hatred.  It can simply be mindless, institutional and narrow minded self interest thwarting rewards to deserving people.

Re reading Andrew Hacker's "The Math Myth" brought to mind all sorts of institutionalized injustices I experienced wending my way through school, going higher and higher, from college to medical school,  and being lucky enough to dodge and elude the math Mandarins. 

Some of the arguments for the Common Core, for advanced algebra for calculus derive from a commendable desire for rigor.  Learning and academic advancement should not be pleasant, enjoyable or fulfilling, the argument goes. You should have to take some courses which prove how much you want it. How much discomfort and drudgery you are willing to suffer.

Rule Makers

I've certainly seen the problems generated when people who are not inclined to dedicate themselves get into jobs which at least once upon a time required a certain amount of self denial and sacrifice, like being a doctor in a hospital, or in an emergency room.  
Watching young doctors walk away from a patient in crisis because their shifts are done, seeing doctors who do not bother to pick up the phone to call another doctor to explain why a patient is being sent for a referral, who really have no inclination to sacrifice anything for a patient's welfare--all this brings home how important the right "character" is for certain jobs. The trouble is, there is no assurance the student who will sacrifice to get his own glittering prize will then be likely to sacrifice his own comfort for a patient or a client.

I once admitted a patient whose blood smear in my office looked like acute myelocytic leukemia and I told  the patient to meet me at the hospital. I phoned the hematology oncology fellow who would have to do the bone marrow and I expected the fellow would, as was customary.  People who are told they might have leukemia are thrust into a special circle of Hell, awaiting the most dreaded news, and the waiting is in some ways as bad as what follows.
 But the fellow did not see the patient. He went to lunch, did some other chores and went home early to have dinner with his wife and he still hadn't got by to see the patient by dinner the next night and I was apoplectic and when I finally tracked him down, I let that  fellow know just how deplorable I thought he was. 
He reacted with indignation that I would get angry. Anger was unacceptable.  The fellow had done well in calculus and got good grades at an elite medical school who was I to judge him when so many had certified him as top drawer?
I thought I had better reason to judge him  a pretty miserable excuse for a doctor, despite his talent for solving polynomial equations.

All this bubbled up as I read Andrew Hacker outlining how we have fallen so far in America with respect to our idea of meritocracy, how thoroughly perverted we've allowed our system of awarding glittering prizes to become.

He tells the story of Jeb Bush visiting a high school in Florida where a girl student asked him if he knew the angles in a  3/4/5 triangle .  Bush had no idea.
"Then you could not graduate from my high school," the student said.
In fact 90% of Florida adults could not pass the tests required of high school students.
The fact is, you can throw up hurdles for students to jump; you can demand real rigor in courses in high school and college, which would separate those who are willing to sacrifice and work hard from the slackers,  without resorting to the use of arbitrary and meaningless hurdles such as solving polynomial equations.

It is any wonder there is anger in the heartland?  Can you blame people for voting against Hillary Clinton, who they see as someone who embraces all that is wrong with how one class, the Mandarins,  who are the professors of mathematics at elite institutions,  keep other classes of people down?

Math and the way math courses are used in America is really just the prologue for Hacker.  What he's really talking about is social injustice. It's about the process, now ubiquitous in America, of telling people who want to be veterinarians'' assistants, electricians, welders, paralegals, physicians, surgeons they don't have the "right stuff" when, in fact, the basis for making this judgment is fraudulent, and the fraud is obvious to anyone who has ever faced a 3/4/5 triangle question.

The tests used are obviously arbitrary and irrelevant to the jobs sought.   

Like Zinn, Hacker looks through the status quo and past the hoary visages of the eminent professors to the truth. 

Truth is actually a rare commodity in America today and Hacker uncovers a mother lode in "The Math Myth."

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