Dyscalculia and Me

Lots of people are razzng Richard Cohen today for his column “What Is the Value of Algebra?” Background: Los Angeles high school students must pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry in order to graduate, and this requirement is causing inordinate numbers of students to drop out in their senior years. Cohen points to one student who failed algebra six times in six semesters, and who finally abandoned her books and disappeared from the school. He writes,

I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time — the only proof I’ve ever seen of divine intervention — somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again. I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry while I busied myself learning how to type. In due course, this came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever took.

Here’s the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know — never mind want to know — how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later — or something like that.

Now, I detected some tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating humor in Cohen’s article, but some of my favorite bloggers were quite upset by it. PZ Myers of Pharyngula writes,

Because Richard Cohen is ignorant of elementary mathematics, he can smugly tell a young lady to throw away any chance being a scientist, a technician, a teacher, an accountant; any possibility of contributing to science and technology, of even being able to grasp what she’s doing beyond pushing buttons. It’s Richard Cohen condescendingly telling someone, “You’re as stupid as I am; give up.” And everything he said is completely wrong.

Shakespeare’s Sister:

I’m not being cheeky. I’m genuinely wondering. Because he seems to have struggled so mightily with basic math that it suggests a possible undiagnosed learning disability, which isn’t a funny thing. It also sounds like the girl in his linked column to whom he’s directing the bad advice that math doesn’t matter–a girl who failed “algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it” and subsequently dropping out of school–may well have an undiagnosed learning disability, too. And that makes his column not just ridiculous or ill-advised, but tragic.

The ever-gentlemanly Kevin Drum is a little kinder:

Cohen’s serious point isn’t really whether algebra is useful or not, it’s whether it should be required to graduate from high school. That is, if you find yourself completely unable to fathom algebra, should you be condemned to spend the rest of your life as a high school dropout? I don’t really have an opinion about this, but it’s a serious question.

On the other hand, Cohen says he can’t do percentages either, and if that’s the case then maybe he should go back to high school.

Sorry, I’m with Richard. Yes, being math-impaired is a learning disability, and I have it. I recognized this years ago, and through all these years I have managed to work around it quite nicely, especially with the help of calculators and Microsoft Excel. I can even calculate percentages with Excel (something I really did have to do in my professional life), although not with a calculator. I’m not sure why that’s true, but it is. Before Excel, I had to ask people to do percentages for me.

I don’t believe I was born math-impaired. I blame the way math was taught in elementary school back in my day. We cave children would sit scratching page after page of the same rote math problem on our stone tablets, and there … is … nothing … more … mind … numbingly … boring than that. Working the problems was easy, but I would have rather watched paint dry than do it. By the time I was in third grade I was falling behind, and by fifth grade or so I had full-blown math phobia, and from then on I was hopeless.

On my PSATs I was in the 90-something percentiles in everything but math; in math I came in at 3rd percentile. Yes, that’s third, not thirty. I am not making this up. (As I remember I left most of the test blank because I was utterly baffled by it, but one of the few questions I did answer I actually got right. This must have saved me from first percentile.) In college I chose to major in journalism mostly because there wasn’t a math requirement.

I do consider it a disability, but if you’ve got to have a disability it’s a relatively benign one to have. I think that was Cohen’s point. He’s not opposed to math education. Nor am I; I am humbled and grateful that so many people can do math and are scientists and doctors and accountants and whatever. Civilization isn’t possible without them. But if you don’t have legs you’re not going to be a dancer. If you don’t have eyes you’re not going to be a graphic artist. I was never going to be a scientist. That’s how life is. I accept it.

Back to Kevin’s question — “if you find yourself completely unable to fathom algebra, should you be condemned to spend the rest of your life as a high school dropout?” My answer is emphatically no. But the real issue, IMO, is math education, and whether math is still being mis-taught. The Los Angeles Times story by Duke Helfand to which Cohen refers says that hundreds of Los Angeles high school students are dropping out without diplomas because of the algebra requirement. “The school district could have seen this coming if officials had looked at the huge numbers of high school students failing basic math,” writes Helfand. Teachers complain that they spend much of the class time reviewing math concepts students should have mastered in fourth grade. And 44 percent of Los Angeles high school students flunk algebra the first time they take it.

It is absolutely pointless to try to teach algebra to teenagers if they’ve had math phobias festering, untreated, since grade school. Fuhgeddaboutit. But in all these years have educators actually come to terms with math phobias, how they form, and how to treat them before it’s too late? Not that I’ve seen.

So instead of getting irritated with algebra invalids like Richard, Gabriela and me, go yell at educators. Dyscalculiaics are made, not born. Usually.

“Marginalizing” the Press

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder:

To many on the outside, it looked like a mistake when Vice President Dick Cheney failed to notify the White House press corps first of his shooting accident. But in the White House, it reflected a strategy of marginalizing the press.

More than ever, the Bush White House ignores traditional news media and presents its message through friendly alternatives, such as talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. And when a reporter appears belligerent in a televised confrontation with the White House spokesman, as NBC’s David Gregory did this week, the imagery helps the administration turn the story into one about the press, which energizes a Republican base that hates the media anyway.

More than just a matter of sniping at an enemy, the Bush administration sees the traditional media as hostile. Working to erode their legitimacy in the public’s eyes is a critical element of its determination to weaken checks on its power.

Bush culties oblige. Like bratty children they throw tantrums at the press whenever it presents Dear Leader in a less than glowing light. Bush toady Thomas Sowell, who pretends to be some kind of journalist, actually wrote this:

There is nothing in the Constitution or the laws that says that the media have a right to be in the White House at all, much less to have press conferences.

Many world leaders have agreed with Sowell:

Sowell, who appears not to have two connecting brain cells anywhere in his head, begins his column “The first revolt of the American colonists against their British rulers was immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson as ‘the shot heard round the world.'” Does Sowell believe colonists outside Massachusetts would have learned about Lexington and Concord were it not for independent colonial newspapers like the New England Courant and the Pennsylvania Gazette? I guess Sowell thinks King George would have issued a news release. He also says “The accidental shooting of Harry Whittington, while he was on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney, has nothing to do with government policy or the Vice President’s official duties.” Oddly, he held Bill Clinton to a different standard.

Thomma of Knight Ridder continues,

… more than any of its predecessors, Bush’s team has learned to deal with the media on the White House’s terms.

Cheney, for example, spoke about the shooting in an interview with Fox News, where hosts all week voiced sympathy for him and criticism for the press badgering him. (In fairness, Fox anchor Brit Hume posed many of the same questions that the White House press had asked – but only Hume got answers.)

Cheney also makes frequent appearances on talk radio, where he’s often fawned over. “We are thrilled and excited to have with us the vice president of the United States … for a precious few minutes,” Limbaugh said during one recent Cheney visit.

This week Limbaugh echoed the White House line, proclaiming: “This is not about Dick Cheney. It’s about the media.”

Thomma writes that Scott McClellan is not just stonewalling the press; he is baiting the press so they’ll play their assigned “bad guy” role for the camera.

At the start of a recent off-camera briefing, for example, White House spokesman Scott McClellan interrupted NBC’s Gregory when he asked about the shooting.

“David, hold on, the cameras aren’t on right now. You can do this later,” McClellan said. On camera later, Gregory appeared abrasive when McClellan stonewalled his questions. While reporters may think such exchanges show that the White House is unresponsive when the public has a right to know, White House aides know the TV imagery makes the press corps look petulant and appear more interested in posturing than in the public interest.

“McClellan is a brick wall disguised as a government official. He wins any time the press bangs its head against the wall,” NYU’s [Jay] Rosen said. “Part of the White House strategy is essentially cultural, that resentment against the press is itself converted into a political asset.”

If you are old enough to remember the Nixon Administration you’ll remember that Nixon and Agnew attempted to make the press their “bad guy,” too. As reporters dug deeper into Nixon’s Watergate and Agnew’s bribery scandals, Nixon apologists of the time complained the press was just picking on their guys because of “liberal bias.” That Nixon and Agnew might actually be guilty as sin doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds.

But Nixon and Agnew were amateurs at media manipulation compared to the Bushies. And Nixon and Agnew didn’t have Faux News, which for all intents and purposes is a propaganda arm of the White House disguised as “independent” news media. But some things don’t change. Like the right wingers of more than 30 years ago, today’s wingnuts are all-too-easily manipulated into betraying every value America ever stood for while calling themselves “patriots.”

Thomma continues,

.. Cheney found a ready audience when he suggested that the White House press corps was angry only because he’d left them out of the loop.

“I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them,” he said. “They didn’t like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times.”

Conservative bloggers echoed that line of attack, despite firm statements from loyal Republicans such as former Defense Department spokeswoman Torie Clarke and former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, who both said that Cheney had acted irresponsibly by not immediately disclosing to the nation that he’d shot someone.

Live TV broadcasts of news briefings also help the White House manipulate the media. Pundits, bloggers and talk-show hosts often spend more time criticizing reporters’ questions than the issues they’re raising. And reporters probing aggressively for information from polite but unresponsive officials can look like snarling jackals.

Jay Rosen of PressThink says the veep did not make a mistake by stonewalling media:

The way I look at it, Cheney took the opportunity to show the White House press corps that it is not the natural conduit to the nation-at-large; and it has no special place in the information chain. Cheney does not grant legitimacy to the large news organizations with brand names who think of themselves as proxies for the public and its right to know. Nor does he think the press should know where he is, what he’s doing, or who he’s doing it with. …

… How does it hurt Bush if for three days this week reporters are pummeling Scott McClellan over the details of when they were informed about Cheney’s hunting accident? That’s three days this week they won’t be pummeling Scott McClellan over the details of this article from Foreign Affairs by Paul R. Pillar, the ex-CIA man who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year.

And we’ve also been distracted from the stonewalling of the NSA spy scandal, notice. Yesterday the Senate Intelligence Committee decided not to investigate the NSA “surveillance” program.

Some days I think that it’s going to take a miracle for this nation to survive the Bush Administration with democracy intact.