Remembrance of Innumeracies Past excerpted from
Innumeracy - Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (Hill and Wang,
Farrar Straus, 1989)
by John Allen Paulos
The earliest memory I have of wanting to be a mathematician was at age ten,
when I calculated that a certain relief pitcher for the then Milwaukee Braves
had an earned run average (ERA) of 135. (For baseball fans: He allowed
five runs to score and only retired one batter). Impressed by this
extraordinarily bad ERA, I diffidently informed my teacher, who told me
to explain the fact to my class. Being quite shy, I did so with a quavering
voice and reddened face. When I finished, he announced that I was all
wrong and that I should sit down. ERAs, he asserted authoritatively, could
never be higher than 27.
At the end of the season THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL published the
averages of all Major League players, and since this pitcher hadn't played
again, his ERA was 135 as I had calculated. I remember thinking of mathematics
as a kind of omnipotent protector. You could prove things to people and
they would have to believe you whether they liked you or not. So, still
smarting from my perceived humiliation, I brought in the paper and showed
it to the teacher. He gave me a dirty look and again told me to sit down.
His idea of good education apparently was to make sure everyone remained
Though not dominated by martinets like my teacher, early mathematics
education is generally poor. Elementary schools by and large do manage to
teach the basic algorithms for multiplication and division, addition and
subtraction, as well as methods for handling fractions, decimals and
percentages. Unfortunately, they don't do as effective a job in teaching
when to add or subtract, when to multiply or divide, or how to convert
from fractions to decimals or percentages. Seldom are arithmetic problems
integrated into other school work - how much, how far, how old, how many.
Older students' fear of the dreaded "word" problems stems, in part, from
the fact that they're too rarely asked to find solutions to these sorts
of quantitative questions at the elementary level. .....
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