Attitudinal new math digs a whole

WASHINGTON -- So, you think the '60s have been licked, eh? You think all those bead-sporting, sandal-wearing, pot-smoking hippies have donned three-piece suits, bought Ford Tauruses and gone to work for Microsoft?

Wrong. The spirit of the '60s -- small-minded, Third-World worshiping, standards-loathing -- is alive and well and living in the public-school curriculum.


The latest outrage to be perpetrated by these Woodstock refugees is Whole Math, or what some displeased parents have labeled "Rain Forest Algebra."

In the early 1960s, humorist Tom Lehrer memorably satirized "New Math" as an effort to help students "understand what they're doing rather than to get the right answer."


In the world of Whole Math, the kids are not expected to get any answers -- just to have the right attitude.

One popular textbook, "Secondary Math: An Integrated Approach; Focus on Algebra," begins by extolling the virtues of teamwork, offers the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in three languages, states that computers will do all our math computations in the future and asks the kids what role they suppose teamwork plays in conserving natural resources.

The text then introduces characters named Taktuk, Esteban and Minh, who offer thoughts on life, environmentalism and such. But equations don't show up until page 165.

Stupid idea

It isn't that Whole Math is pure propaganda. There is an idea behind it. It's just a stupid idea.

Whole Math, like its sister, Whole Language (which has been abandoned by the state of California after disastrous results), is based on the notion that learning should not be a top-down process in which teachers impart knowledge to students.

Rather, it should be a cooperative enterprise in which teams of students, through a process of discovery, figure things out for themselves. Accordingly, in Whole Math, children are often asked to figure out division before they've learned to multiply. If they run into difficulties, no problem, they are handed a calculator.

In Fairfax County, Va., third-graders are taught to think mathematically by discussing how they would recreate U.S. currency. They learn place value by punching numbers into a calculator with a partner. Susan Christ, a mother of four, reports that never in the course of four years of public schooling for her four children did she ever see a teacher standing at the front of the classroom.


No more "sage on a stage," counsels the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Teachers are to be "facilitators." Do you hear the echoes of the '60s? The resistance to authority? The naive faith that "children have so much to teach us"?

And what are the results? Well, columnist John Leo reports that in Palo Alto, Calif., in the year following the introduction of Whole Math, public school students fell from the 86th percentile in math to the 58th. When the approach was moderated the following year, the kids bounced up a bit to the 77th percentile.

Whole Math is everywhere. And, like every other educational innovation, it is being met with precious little parental resistance. Most parents are supine in the face of this assault on the life chances of their children.

The irony is that these curricula, devised by leftists who profess to care so much for the poor and disadvantaged, have the effect of handicapping the students who are trapped in public schools.

Wealthy or even comfortable families often look at nonsense like Whole Math and pull their kids out. These children will learn what they need to score well on the SATs at St. Vincent's or Phillips Exeter Academy.

But the children in public schools, who may be very bright, are left with multicultural propaganda and calculators.


Mrs. Christ, an accountant, had hoped to stay at home until her kids were grown. But Whole Math has convinced her that the public schools cannot be trusted. In the fall, her kids will enroll at a Christian school with a traditional curriculum, and she will have to return to work to afford the tuition.

How much more dumbing down can the schools push before parents awake?

Mona Charen writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/05/97