Letters — From the November 2013 issue
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Divide and Conquer
I was troubled by Nicholson Baker’s essay calling for the elimination of Algebra II from high school curricula [“Wrong Answer,” September], which fails to acknowledge the great value of a math education. The late Earl Shorris, a former contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, understood math’s importance, and when he founded the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a college-level curriculum for people living in poverty, he asked me to develop a math class for his students. As he rightly observed, mathematics belongs among the humanities. He wanted to use math to teach students to think abstractly, and I designed a course in mathematical logic, beginning with Aristotle and working up to propositional and first-order predicate calculus. Once they became familiar with the logic, my students found themselves solving complicated problems that once would have flummoxed them. Their sense of triumph was palpable.
As a researcher who studies how to improve students’ math and science performance, I was intrigued by Baker’s rejection of the pervasive and statistically untenable argument that every student should score above average in math. He failed, however, to address some important issues. For one, there is a wide achievement gap in math performance between American boys and girls, and between middle-class students, predominantly white and Asian, and poor students of color. If math were offered only as an elective, it would likely be taken mostly by white middle-class boys, further exacerbating this disparity and the demographic homogeneity it produces in scientific professions. Underfunded schools might stop offering math altogether if few students expressed interest. Before we throw out the algebra instruction with the advanced-mathematics bathwater, we should try to make it more equitable.
It isn’t only mathematics for which the Common Core State Standards are ridiculously stringent. The language-arts standards for seventh-grade students, for example, require them to know the precise “function of phrases and clauses” — the difference, say, between an adjectival and an adverbial infinitive phrase. Our schools drill this over and over, then administer high-stakes tests. But few successfully employed adults know the difference, and still fewer need to. If one can communicate clearly, there’s little need to be able to classify the components of that communication. I love English, but I hate what the Common Core is demanding of our students.
I, too, have had my fair share of bad experiences with math education. In my junior year of high school, I was taught by a sadist who would post the test answers at the back of the classroom and instruct his students to “read ’em and weep!” and my attitude was not improved by my calculus instructor at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1967, one Ted Kaczynski (yes, the Unabomber). He did not like to answer questions, and it often seemed he would rather be elsewhere.
Santa Clara, Calif.
William T. Vollmann’s report on reading his FBI file and discovering that he was a Unabomber suspect [“Life as a Terrorist,” September] brought back the feelings of weariness, amusement, and frustration I once suffered as the target of government surveillance. In the years after September 11, 2001, the FBI abused its expanded powers to investigate me and PETA. Records about the episode were released to us earlier this year, and in them I found, among other things, that PETA was believed to have planted an “operative” at the U.S. Army Medical Command at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and to have moved our headquarters from outside Washington, D.C., to Norfolk, Virginia, because we had obtained anthrax and wanted to be a safe distance from the contamination zone once it was released. It seems the FBI is bent on making those of us who have nothing to do with terrorism fit into its paranoid jigsaw puzzle.
Ingrid E. Newkirk
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
On reading Jonathan Franzen’s ambivalent homage to Thomas Pynchon [“A Different Kind of Father,” Readings, September], I was amazed that he referred to his fiancée as V., which seemed either too auspicious or downright postmodern. V., the mysterious titular heroine of Pynchon’s first novel, is thought by some to have been inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, Vera, to whom all Nabokov’s novels were dedicated. Add to the mix Franzen’s characters Wallace Wallace Wallace (one is reminded of David Foster Wallace) and Karl Kraus, the author of the piece to which Franzen’s essay serves as a footnote and the namesake of Franzen’s father’s chain-smoking friend, and it’s not hard to think that, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the whole essay is a brilliant scam. A panicky Google search reveals that Franzen was once married to a Valerie Cornell, which explains the first initial. As for Cornell, that’s where Nabokov once taught European literature to Pynchon. May the Pynchonian conspiracies live on!