Friday, February 17, 2006

Now Wait A Minute

Read this PZ Meyers smackdown of the deserving Richard Cohen, then come back.

First, Richard Cohen sucks -- I can never forgive him for the glib banality of his "Color Me Purple" column, or his many other assorted acts of pseudoliberalism -- and certainly he deserves Meyers's attention on general principle for his advocacy of ignorance, but Meyers goes too far.

I'm not sure you want to quote too much Jefferson on the subject of a proper curriculum; though what Meyers excerpts is blameless, the third President, if I recall correctly, also had some fairly crackpot ideas on what should not be taught -- in the matter of Latin, for instance.

Everyone's guilty of supposing that their own chosen field is neglected by others. I write that not just to start a riff on Meyers's exaggerations, but to warn of my own. And while I'm offering caveats, let me say this: I fucking hated algebra and generally disliked math (on the other hand, I rather liked geometry, loved chemistry until the math got insanely tedious; also, I admit that even I have used algebra in real life applications -- on a fucking farm! -- it's not totally useless).

If Cohen definitely goes too far, and he does, then so too does Meyers, though not quite so far:

Yeah, a person can live a good, bland life without knowing much: eat, watch a little TV, fornicate now and then, bleat out opinions that the other contented consumers will praise. It's so easy.

Right: algebra is not useful for the most essential tasks, which are interpersonal and depend on a passable (if often degraded) use of language. But neither is it essential to a spicy, rich life which goes far beyond the basic mundane things Meyers lists. The giveaway here is the absurdist exaggeration: a life without algebra is a life of an unreflective, incurious automaton! If Meyers wants to thrash Cohen for advocating ignorance of any subject, much less one that is required in a particular sector of admittedly high-paying jobs*, then that's fine. But I'm sorry, one has to know at least a little bit of a language -- English, Mandarin, pigfuckinglatin, whatever -- to be socially functional, and therefore, in theory at least, employable. However, one can easily get by in life without using algebra without being the clueless bleating fucktard charicature Meyers paints. It's just not equal. Dont tell me that unit per unit, knowledge of algebra is just as essential as knowledge of, in our society, passable English or Spanish, a little pop culture, some civics and history, and, at bare minimum if all else is lost, what used to be called street smarts. Nor is it necessary to know algebra to live a full, even intellectual life. I understand Meyers as saying that ignorance of algebra is the equal of illiteracy.

Sure, there are people who are living examples of the algebraically-efficient-but-less-history-and-English-please Meyersian model: some are called sabermetricians, the worst of whom are the most socially-inept, lifetime onanist, clueless asshats** one could imagine outside an NRO cruise or a Dungeons & Dragons convention. Whatever the problems -- and they are myriad -- of our schools, a math fetish at the expense of "survival knowledge" as I've listed above is not the answer.

Throughout the milieu in which Meyers writes, Cohen is regularly laughed at, and assholes like me help to soil the general discourse, it is not necessary to know the pedantry of algebra. Even public life, indeed, such knowledge is not necessary, though comfort with scientific principles is a must. A politician need not know how to solve quadratic equations, but he should know some history, geography, law and be able to communicate coherently. Yet Meyers seems to be saying that knowledge of algebra is just as necessary -- to anyone, politician, electrician, whatever, who doesn't want to be a mouth-breathing fool. Meyers is exaggerating, and implies that anyone not in accord with his exaggeration of the importance of algebra is a close-minded imbecile (though I agree that Richard Cohen is just that), rather than merely a person who makes pragmatic, sensible selections in their intellectual curiosity based on circumstances and tastes.

A proposal: until Meyers agrees that knowledge of the intricacies of the Bulgarian tax code is just as important as reading, writing and a basic working-knowledge of American civics principles, I'll consider him a close-minded saboteur of American children's education.

*Which is not to say that I believe all learning should be toward a utilitarian purpose. Quite the contrary. In fact, that's my biggest problem with Cohen's column. It's just that, for most people, the utility of the subjects Cohen recommends is far greater than that of Meyers's math math math!

**Their religion is numbers. In my nastier moments I confess to wishing that someone would shove a copy of this DVD up their asses sideways with minimal lube.