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AnAmerAffidavit

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

67. Rain Forest Algebra: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Rain Forest Algebra 

In the summer of 1997, a Democratic senator stood on the floor of the Senate denouncing 
the spread of what he called "wacko algebra"; one widely distributed math text referred to 
in that speech did not ask a question requiring algebraic knowledge until page 107. What 



replaced the boredom of symbolic calculation were discussions of the role of zoos in 
community life, or excursions to visit the fascinating Dogon tribe of West Africa. 
Whatever your own personal attitude toward "rain forest algebra," as it was snidely 
labeled, you would be hard-pressed not to admit one thing: its problems are almost 
computation-free. Whether you find the mathematical side of social issues relevant or not 
isn't in question. Your attention should be fixed on the existence of minds, nominally in 
charge of number enlightenment for your children, which consider a private agenda more 
important than numbers. 

One week last spring, the entire math homework in fifth grade at middle-class P.S. 87 on 
the Upper West Side of Manhattan consisted of two questions: ' 

1 . Historians estimate that when Columbus landed on what is now the island of Hati 
[this is the spelling in the question] there were 250,000 people living there. In two 
years this number had dropped to 125,000. What fraction of the people who had 
been living in Hati when Columbus arrived remained? Why do you think the 
Arawaks died? 

2. In 1515 there were only 50,000 Arawaks left alive. In 1550 there were 500. If the 
same number of people died each year, approximately how many people would 
have died each year? In 1550 what percentage of the original population was left 
alive? How do you feel about this? 

Tom Loveless, professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has no doubt 
that National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards have deliberately de- 
emphasized math skills, and he knows precisely how it was done. But like other vigorous 
dissenters who have tried to arrest the elimination of critical intellect in children, he 
adduces no motive for the awesome project which has worked so well up to now. 
Loveless believes that the "real reform project has begun: writing standards that declare 
the mathematics children will learn." He may be right, but I am not so sanguine. 

Elsewhere there are clues which should check premature optimism. In 1989, according to 
Loveless, a group of experts in the field of math education launched a campaign "to 
change the content and teaching of mathematics." This new math created state and 
district policies which "tend to present math reform as religion" and identify as sinful 
behaviors teacher-delivered instruction, individual student desk work, papers corrected 
for error. Teachers are ordered to keep "an elaborate diary on each child's 'mathematical 
disposition.'" 

Specific skills de-emphasized are: learning to use fractions, decimals, percents, integers, 
addition, subtraction, multiplication, division — all have given way to working with 
manipulatives like beans and counting sticks (much as the Arawaks themselves would 
have done) and with calculators. Parents worry themselves sick when fifth graders can't 
multiply 7 times 5 without hunting for beans and sticks. Students who learn the facts of 
math deep down in the bone, says Loveless, "gain a sense of number unfathomable to 
those who don't know them." 



The question critics should ask has nothing to do with computation or reading ability and 
everything to do with this: How does a fellow human being come to regard ordinary 
people's children as experimental animals? What impulse triggers the pornographic urge 
to deprive kids of volition, to fiddle with their lives? It is vital that you consider this or 
you will certainly fall victim to appeals that you look at the worthiness of the outcomes 
sought and ignore the methods. This appeal to pragmatism urges a repudiation of 
principle, sometimes even on the grounds that modern physics "proves" there is no 
objective reality. 

Whether children are better off or not being spared the effort of thinking algebraically 
may well be a question worth debating but, if so, the burden of proof rests on the 
challenger. Short-circuiting the right to choice is a rapist's tactic or a seducer's. If, behind 
a masquerade of number study, some unseen engineer infiltrates the inner layers of a 
kid's consciousness — the type of subliminal influence exerted in rain forest algebra — 
tinkering with the way a child sees the larger world, then in a literal sense the purpose of 
the operation is to dehumanize the experimental subject by forcing him or her into a 
predetermined consensus. 



1 A P. S. 87 parent, Sol Stem, brought this information to my attention, adding this assessment, "The idea 
that schools can starve children of factual knowledge and basic skills, yet somehow teach critical thinking, 
defies common sense." Mr. Stem in his capacity as education editor of New York's City Journal often 
writes eloquently of the metropolitan school scene. 



Godless, But Not Irreligious 

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