Serendipitous Relevance and American Lit

I like to show how the books we study in school have left a lasting legacy to contemporary society.  If nothing else, when students complain how boring and outdated the books are, I can either try to elicit some open mindedness by showing them that P. Diddy consciously imitates The Great Gatsby, or I can at least argue that their recalcitrance is in opposition to the popular culture with which they’re enthralled. 

This year has been an especially good one for that.  I started the year off with The Scarlet Letter, just as a teen comedy loosely based on it, Easy A, hit theaters.  When we read Moby Dick, I was able to show them the recent Blackberry ad about the novel (many students told me that the ad made much more sense afterwards!).  We finished Huckleberry Finn last month and now, as we review the semester, there’s a national controversy brewing about a new, censored version of the text. 

Near the end of this year, when I try to wrestle some Faulkner into my students, I’ll be able to tell them that Hollywood hunk James Franco is directing a new film of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying

Now if only I could find a more recent reference for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea than a second season episode of The Simpsons

In Praise of Math

In 2004, 19% of Nevada high school seniors didn’t graduate because they couldn’t pass the math proficiency test. That’s actually an improvement from 2003, when 25% of seniors—fully one in every four—failed. Of course, the improvement came because the state, embarrassed and impotent, lowered the passing score. 

And now we find that about 90% of teenagers in Algebra I can’t pass a basic test of those math skills:

It’s no coincidence that the decline of math in America has held hands with a parallel decline in logical thinking. When someone gets malnourished, you look for what’s lacking in their diet; when students lose the ability to think above an elementary level, you notice which proficiency test repeatedly causes the most problems.

An example from class this year: Last month I held a class discussion about the decline of literacy. One boy defensively declared that people who don’t read much are just as smart as people who do. “How do you know?” I asked.

He looked confused. “It’s just my opinion.”

“No it’s not. You made a statement of fact. Either you’re right or you’re wrong. In fact, your inability to explain yourself suggests that your ‘opinion’ is just wishful thinking. Let’s put it this way,” I said, thinking I was being helpful, “why do you have this opinion instead of some other view?”

He thought for a moment. “It’s just my opinion!” 

See, the decline of math is the decline of concrete thinking, which rots away our logic and reason, the foundation of all Western civilization. Without logic and reason, we’re left in a weird wasteland where subjectivity reigns supreme. They think this way because they’re imitating the culture from whose shallow trough they feed.

After the 2004 presidential election, I saw a network reporter interview rapper P. Diddy, whose “Vote or Die” campaign for MTV had sought to get more young people to vote, and to vote for a certain candidate. The reporter informed him that exit polls showed that, despite MTV’s incessant marketing, more young people had notvoted, nor had more of them voted for the party MTV favored. She asked P. Diddy what he thought of this. Without skipping a beat, he calmly explained that he thought his work had been successful because he felt that more young people had voted.

I couldn’t believe what I’d heard—was she interviewing a three-year-old? He had just blatantly contradicted her research results with a statement of his feelings. I wonder how good P. Diddy is at math.

I’m reminded of a passage from a book I read called A Thomas Jefferson Education. To paraphrase the author, the benefits of learning math include learning to:

  1. Seek and recognize patterns
  2. Explore the relationships between information
  3. See similarities and differences clearly
  4. Analyze information logically (love those word problems!)
  5. Understand that there are correct answers out there to be sought after
  6. Avoid jumping to conclusions
  7. Seek evidence for conclusions (I wish the boys in my classes could do that. Also, P. Diddy.)
  8. Figure things out for yourself without just accepting whatever you’re told
  9. Remain open to new possibilities
  10. Think like the greatest creators in history.

If more people had these skills, imagine how many of the nation’s problems would vanish overnight. Imagine how much progress this nation could make. Imagine how much deeper and more meaningful our lives would be.