Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In defense of math and science and fact-based learning.


Before I begin this quasi-rant let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not the world's most factual thinker.

That's not to say that I don't "believe in facts," or that I don't think logically. I would be labeled as one of those "creative" types. I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that magic is real. There are no facts in the world to prove my knowledge, but I know it none-the-less. I guess I would be one of those rogue cops on your-cop-show-of-choice who follows her proverbial "gut." I use intuition as knowledge.

My monkey likes to make fun of me for this, sometimes. One day, I was explaining the nature of unicorns - she was laughing so hard, she was practically crying, and said, "Oh my! I love Alyssa Science!" And that's the best way to explain it. I just have my own systematic thinking on any variety of subjects.

This last week, while I was in Canada visiting said Monkey, she's finally realized that what my psyche calls "math" has nothing to do with actual numbers. She has a tendency to hog the bed, and as I was pointing this out (in an oh-so-charming way), I said, "You take up like, 2/3's of the bed!" her response? Hysterical laughter. Again. Not because of my incredible wit, but because my assertion is ridiculous - she has a double bed. 2/3's was apparently over-reaching and not factual. (I still think I'm right) Alyssa math: making shit up since 1986.

I almost failed geometry. I'm TERRIBLE with fractions. I got an A- in Advanced Algebra in high school because my teacher assigned lots of extra credit. And when I had to theorize about math in college, forgettaboutit. That grade single-handedly prevented my sure-fire accumulative 3.7 GPA. I'm better at science - at least when it comes to memorizing words and actions. But science has equations, too. Once we moved beyond the classifications of rocks and how they were formed, in geology; we had to figure out the chemical compounds. What? They're rocks. They're here! I see them, I can feel them. I don't need to know the stinking chemical compounds of the rock to prove its existence!

Now - with all of my idiocy, all my lack-of-facts theories, at least I'm smart enough to know when I'm stupid. I wholeheartedly admit that knowledge of both math and science is infantile. I KNOW that there are much, much, much smarter people who know many, many, many more things than I do. Real facts, even. As an adult, sometimes I read publications to try to understand these things - and sometimes I do! I like to know what's going on in the world around me - factually. Then I can contort it in my imagination.

Three things presented themselves to me today, and I felt something I've never felt before: The need to defend fact-based learning.

Exhibit A: Cameron Diaz wants to change public education

 "I like to cook and I like to clean so I think I would be a pretty good home economics teacher… But they don't teach kids that anymore. They don't teach stuff that you can actually use in life. You learn stuff like algebra instead. So now we eat out all the time and don't know how to look after ourselves. It's all wrong." 

Exhibit B: Miss United States hopefuls disclose their views on Evolution

In Cameron Diaz's defense, I think I know what she's saying. I think she's saying that we're not doing enough to teach kids how to take care of themselves - which I agree with. But to dismiss a subject like algebra - that is helpful and useful (critical thinking and problem solving, Cameron - and not just for equations), sounds like a really really bad teen movie. We need people to cook and clean and change oil and fix plumbing problems, I'm not knocking usefulness. But if my plumber has a higher grasp of problem solving and critical thinking because he didn't do badly in Algebra, then maybe I won't argue when he charges me $1,000 to unclog a drain, without having to take apart half of a wall.  Perhaps this is art mirroring life a little too closely for you, Bad Teacher?

All I can say about the pageant contestants, is that sadly, I'm not surprised. But huzzah for Miss Washington! "I think facts should be taught in schools." Well said, lady! The revelation that struck me while watching it, however, was the reminder about how quick women are to make things okay. With a couple of exceptions (Miss Alabama on one end of the creationist spectrum, and Miss Washington on the side of evolution), almost everyone else was trying to make both sides fit into the system: "Maybe we can teach a little bit of evolution" said Miss Virginia. "I think it's fine as long as the biblical theories aren't excluded," said Miss North Dakota. "I think all views on the subject should be taught," said hippy Miss Oregon. And perhaps it's because I'm a woman myself, that ideally, that the middle-of-the-road sounds wonderful. The problem that arises, however, is the notion of public school. If public school is truly public, then everyone has the right to be represented. Which means that Buddhism and Islam and scientology, Hindi, Taoism, Anarchy, Wiccans, Satan-worshippers, Mormons, Klingons, and every other faction of the world has a right to have a say - which would be a fascinating class! except that I think several different Christian groups would protest, and public schools are so woefully underfunded that there's not a practical way to teach something as wide-reaching, no matter how diverse and tolerant.

But most importantly, you bag of overly made-up ladies, evolution is based in science. SCIENCE. Christianity is based on religious belief. And while you believe in creationism and God created the world in a record-breaking 7 days, not one bit of has any proof, any fact, and evidence. Just like my belief on the nature of unicorns. But you don't see ME demanding that evolution not be talked about because evolution never once mentions my magical, golden friends, do you?

Facts are based on evidence, and findings, and study, and research. And you can't discount any of it. There's merit in them, and hard-work, and higher thinking. Just because you don't believe in it, doesn't mean it's not true.

And finally - I do believe that math should be taught in schools, regardless of my ignorant math brain.