In his March 11 op-ed column, Dean Keith Devlin of St. Mary's College in California observes: "In tests of general mathematics knowledge and advanced mathematics, the results obtained by U.S. 12th-graders were among the lowest of the participating countries" in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Surprisingly, Devlin believes that it is OK to dilute mastery of the traditional basics still further.
Devlin says, "The nation needs only 3 percent or 4 percent of the population to be highly skilled in mathematics." Elementary arithmetic will not be part of Devlin's "new basics." He says: "The industrial age was an age of arithmetic. Today's information age is quite different."
But without some solid training in arithmetic, even the idea of "percent" will not be understood by his readers. And without some internalized knowledge of basic procedures and skills, the user of a calculator or computer, which use I support, will have no idea what he is doing.
We are already developing in many young people a new learning disability that I call "calculator-assisted mathematical incompetence." I can think of few scenarios more damaging to the national business, scientific and engineering infrastructure than the instructional baloney advocated by Devlin.
As a professor of mathematics at Canisius College, my own view is very different. Math education is like a platform. Young people well-schooled in the traditional basics of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and trigonometry will be able to decide for themselves what careers they will pursue. Increasingly, many of these careers will involve the use of sophisticated mathematics,including calculus. A weak background in math will all but foreclose those career options. The jobs will be filled, but by qualified foreign applicants.
A more balanced view is given by Professor Barry Simon, who argues for a restoration of Euclidean Geometry.
After attending James Madison High School in Brooklyn, Simon went on to become chairman of the Mathematics Department at Cal Tech.
"I am concerned about the country as a whole," said Simon. "The dumbing down of high school education in the United States, especially in mathematics and science, is a crime that must be laid at the doorstep of the educational establishment."
Judging by his remarks, it appears that Devlin sits right in the middle of that doorstep.
Richard H. Escobales Jr. Town of Tonawanda