My Irish Up: Fun with math

Mike Corrigan

Mike Corrigan

By Mike Corrigan

BN Columnist

How many times have you heard this? “Why do I have to do this stupid homework? It’s not like I’ll ever use math in my real life!”

And, how many times have you argued back, trying to sound reasonable for once: “Son, don’t be crazy. If you want to get a good job at a burger joint, you’ll have to be able to count to 11 to fill up a French fry order. Also, I need you to move out of the house before you’re 40, which is twice the age your mother was when your sister was one-third as old as she is now.”

And, that’s why American kids’ math scores continue to plummet, and their parents tend to lead dull daily lives themselves. Nobody’s honing their math skills anymore at the old kitchen table. Notice that even on Sesame Street, they still haven’t gotten much past the number nine — and they’ve been working on the problem for 40 years!

Nobody does back-of-the-envelope calculations anymore, either, due to the relative scarcity of envelopes. Plus, when watching a baseball game, you no longer have to keep track of the score in your head, because there it is, in a little box in the corner of the screen. (We’re losing, 4-to-1, as any fool can see.) And modern cash registers have made things worse: few cashiers are actually qualified to handle cash anymore, because so few of them can subtract without electronic assistance, even to arrive at the nearest dollar. Without a digital readout, seven of 10 Americans can’t even tell time anymore. And the other three can’t do it, even with a digital readout.

The real problem here isn’t Americans, of course, or even math. It’s this Western cultural attitude that everything, even knowledge, must be so darn vocational or it isn’t worth our time and effort, that kills all the joy of learning. It wasn’t always this way. I can’t tell you how many happy hours I spent with my friends, or with my friend, trying to trisect an angle with just a compass and a protractor, or competing in square root tournaments. My friend, Rodney, always won the square root tournaments. I usually won the trisecting tournaments, by refusing to believe it couldn’t be done. At midnight, I’d still be there at the table, tongue stuck out of the side of my mouth, drafting back angles. (There supposedly was some mathematical proof that alleged you could not trisect an angle using only a compass and straightedge. I didn’t see why then, I still don’t, and someday I’m going to do it, too!)

Yes, in the old days, parents couldn’t pry their children away from figures, relationships and correspondences: we were math-hungry. It wasn’t like today, where the Big Lie is “you’ll never get a good job without math.” The fact is, you’ll never get a good job anyway, as all the good jobs have been sent overseas, where people do math a lot better than you do.

“You kids go outside where it’s sunny and breezy,” my Mom would say, back when there were moms. My brother Bob would counter, “But, we don’t want to; it’s January and the wind’s blowing… (here he checks the anemometer)… 41 miles an hour!” And Mom would say, “Well, figure out the windchill, then, and you can stay inside.” Bob would fall to writing down all the complex equations he knew, involving 5/9 and + or -32, and all that stuff, when he didn’t have to convert to Celsius anyway — he was just doing it to show off — while I, meanwhile, looked at the relevant instrument readouts and said drily, “Minus 18.”

Five minutes later, Bob would come up with the exact answer. “No, Stupid, minus 17.78.”

“What did I tell you?”

“Mom, Mike’s estimating again!”

My friend, Greg, scored a perfect 800 on his math SATs in high school, which immediately qualified him to join the Navy and skip Vietnam. So don’t say math has no value in a boy’s life. As far as utility goes, it should be known that his friends still use Greg’s math skills all the time. Someone will ask, “Whose deal is it?” or “How much is in that pot?” Greg will tell us, like he’s the Rainman or somebody.

His friends often skip Mike’s turn, convincing him he just dealt.

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