Should Americans just give up?

New York Times Joins the Dumbing-Down Movement

by Conrad Weisert, August 1, 2012
© 2012 Information Disciplines, Inc., Chicago

NOTE: This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright notice is included.

Strike one!


That's a COBOL statement, but you're not likely to find it in a typical COBOL program. You're more likely to encounter this:


Yes, the COMPUTE statement provides all the arithmetic a program needs. The designers of COBOL, however, hoped to avoid limiting the growing ranks of programmers to people who understood parenthesized arithmetic expressions! By providing four single-operation statements as an alternative COBOL would empower as bona fide programmers those who were never exposed to eighth or ninth grade mathematics or who had long ago forgotten whatever they had learned.

A half-century later we find that COBOL programs constitute the vast bulk of incomprehensible and unmaintainable legacy code. It is generally agreed that the programmers who created those nightmares were, at best, marginally qualified and never should have been given the responsibility for implementing major applications.

Strike two!

In the course of recruiting or advising clients on recruiting a first-rate programming staff I usually cited ability to write coherent English as an essential qualification. "Not so fast!" I was warned. "There's no proven relationship between programming performance and ability to write clear English (or another natural language). We'll get in trouble for discrimination!"

I would respond by citing my long experience in which people who couldn't write coherent documentation also had difficulty organizing their thoughts to solve logical problems. They were less productive than their articulate counterparts and their programs were of significantly lower quality.

I believe those issues have moderated somewhat in the past decade, but this web site doesn't give legal advice, and you should consult your own lawyer if you're worried about fairness in hiring or staff advancement.

Strike three!

Is Algebra Necessary?

That was the screaming headline on page one of the July 29 Sunday New York Times "Sunday Review" (editorial) section. The article, written by an emeritus professor of Political Science, consumes (with a large graphic) two thirds of page 1, a third of page 6, and a third of page 7. The section contains no rebuttal or counter opinion.

The article attacks the usefulness of algebra in particular and mathematics in general to undergraduate and high-school students. The writer doesn't mean algebra in the sense of the Higher Algebra or Abstract Algebra that we'd find in a university course catalog, but just in the sense of elementary algebra as traditionally introduced (in America) in ninth grade or earlier.

The one example of allegedly useless knowledge that the article cites raised doubts about the writer's own command of the topic:

"There's no evidence that being able to prove
  (x2 + y2)2 = (x2 - y2)2 + (2xy)2
leads to more credible political opinion or social analysis."

The expression is not a theorem demanding sophisticated proof, but an identity requiring trivial evaluation that a 15-year-old ought to know how to do without deep thought. Would you hire a programmer or a manager (or even someone to develop "credible political opinion or social analysis") for whom that simple identity is beyond comprehension?

The writer went on to wonder

"How many college graduates remember what Fermat's dilemma was all about?"
Apparently very few, since the article inspired a deluge of Internet comments from college graduates admitting that they had never heard of "Fermat's Dilemma". In his sixty years Pierre de Fermat may well have confronted any number of dilemmas, but I know of none that survived to be named for him.

Defending ignorance

Although many readers have contributed opinions supporting both these comments and a later piece on the same topic, a surprising number, including some with academic credentials, have supported the advocates of ignorance. One quoted in the Washington Post reported his reaction:

"Whenever I meet anyone who wants to talk about education, I immediately ask them [sic] to tell me the quadratic equation. Almost no one ever can."

Most of us would put "the quadratic equation" in the same category as "Fermat's Dilemma". Among the infinite number of quadratic equations, we might ask for the general form ax2+bx+c = 0 or we might seek the quadratic formula (solving the general form for x), but I wouldn't know how to answer a request from someone I had just met to "tell the quadratic equation".

—CW, December 26, 2013

The agenda

This web site has avoided taking positions that might be considered political or ideological, but it's hard to ignore the obvious relationship between (a) those who openly advocate or promote ignorance and (b) positions on one end of the political spectrum, especially in the United States. Readers can ask themselves which political party or faction benefits more from an ignorant populace.

The Texas Republican Party recently adopted a platform plank on public education, stating that they:

. . . oppose the teaching of "higher order thinking skills" — a curriculum which strives to encourage critical thinking — that might challenge "student's fixed beliefs" and undermine "parental authority."

The New York Times anti-algebra piece cited support from educational results in Tennessee, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and New Mexico.

Return to IDI home page
education articles

Last modified December 26, 2013