Rant and Rave

Rant and Rave

Don't miss the Rant and Rave Primer
An Explanation of Ranting and Raving
By Dr. Thomas L. Magliozzi

The Allegory of the Epiphany at the Fountain
...tell me THIS isn't crazy

by Tom Magliozzi

Tell me THIS isn't crazy.

Despite the fact that all of my being wanted to cry out in despair, I sat there quietly in my son's math class. It was "back to school" night--when parents get to spend 15 minutes in each of their kid's classes while "Teach" describes what the course is all about. On the board was the following description:

"Calculus is the collection of techniques that allow us to determine the slope of any curve and the area under that curve."

And all of my being wanted to cry out,

"So who in God's creation gives a rat's patouty!"

It took all of the self restraint I could muster to keep my mouth shut. If you have a few minutes, I'll tell you why I was so distraught.

Tommy's FountainThe Allegory of the Epiphany at the Fountain

Sometimes simple events provoke deep thoughts.

Here's an example.

I've always wanted a fountain in my back yard. (I'm Italian. Or is that redundant?) Finally, this past summer, my dream came true. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The sound of the water cascading from the mouths of four lions was more than I had ever hoped for. I sat beside my dream for hours basking in the perfection of my reverie.

One day the gardener--who happens to also be my lovely wife--says to me,

"Hey! Wake up! I've been thinking. The fountain doesn't look quite right, just sitting there. It needs something around the base to set it off from the rest of the yard."

"Like what," says I.

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe those cute Italian tiles that I saw in one of the garden catalogs." Maybe a border of Italian tiles around the base would be nice."

The tiles are a great idea, thought I. (After all, they're Italian. I'm Italian too. Did I mention that?)

So we decide to do the tiles. But it turns out not to be that simple.

Lion Fountain Now, I should explain that the fountain has a narrow base upon which sits a large octagonally shaped cistern into which the water flows as it exits the mouths of the four magnificent lions. The gardener doesn't want the tiles to be directly under the octagonally shaped cistern but rather 8 or 10 inches away from it so we can have some room to plant some flowers.

Here's the problem.

Are the tiles the right size?

They only come in one size--3 inches by 7 inches. The sides of the octagon of the fountain are 10 inches. If we put two tiles side by side, the new octagon will be 14 inches on a side.

Is this OK? That is, if we "build" a new octagon about 8 or 10 inches away from the fountain. will the sides be 14 inches?

"Hmmm," says I. "This appears to be a geometry/trigonometry problem. Boy, oh boy."

So, I sketch out the problem on the back of an envelope and proceed to do the necessary calculations (Involving similar triangles and, of course, the theorem of Pythagoras.)

I conclude that if I build the new octagon 8 inches away from the base, the sides of the octagon will be 7.27 inches. The tiles were perfect! Wow!

Fountain Fountain Legend

This was the simple event that provoked what I think is an epiphany of sorts. There I was, sitting in my back yard solving an innocuous little geometry problem when it occurred to me that this was maybe the second time in my life--maybe the first--that I had had occasion to USE the geometry and trigonometry that I had learned in high school.

Furthermore, I had NEVER had occasion to use the higher mathematics that the high school math had prepared me for.


Here's the revelation.

Why did I--and millions of other students --spend valuable educational hours learning something that we would never use?

Is this education? Learning skills that we will never need?

And even when I did get to use it, what did I use it for? To determine whether the 7 inch tiles would work. A problem, I might add, which I could have solved by trial and error by cutting out a few 7 inch pieces of cardboard. And I might further add that it would have been faster with the cutouts.

Now to the larger issue. A while ago, I wrote a short rant about education, and created an Education Forum, in which I--using the tact and diplomacy for which I am well known--stated that:

1 The entire educational system in this country stinks (pretty much).
2 The people who run the education business are money-grubbing, self serving morons (C'mon Tom, tell us what you really think).
3 The people who do the teaching are--for the most part--egomaniacs who don't have the faintest idea of what education should be all about.
4 Let's figure it out for ourselves and fix it.

As I thought about my "fountain epiphany event," I concluded that I had been wrong. It wasn't true that this event had been the first instance of an actual use of high school math. I HAD indeed used that high school math. I had used it as preparation for all the other math courses--including those I had taken at my good old alma mater M.I.T. But, I had never used that math for any useful purpose either! (And don't forget, I went to M.I.T. I was educated to be an engineer. I worked as an engineer for many years. And even at that, I had NEVER ever! had a need for these math courses.)

What about all those people who majored in Art History? Or biology? Or Accounting? Or just about anything? Why had they all been subjected to "Calculus...the collection of techniques...blah, blah, blah...?"

So, here's my conclusion.

The purpose of learning math, which most of us will never use, is only to prepare us for further math courses -- which we will use even less frequently than never.

The answer, which I suppose I would get from math instructors, is this.

"You may never need it, but it teaches you to think."

You mean to tell me that there aren't enough *useful* subjects that could be used to teach me to think? For example:

  • I wish I had learned about decision trees in high school. Decision trees taught me to think. Decision trees are useful. Geometry is not.

  • I wish I had learned about the real differences between males and females when I was in high school. That would have been really useful. Geometry is not.

  • I wish I had learned about statistics and probability in high school, so that I could have been able to distinguish between truth and twisted truth. That would have been useful. Geometry is not.

So, why do schools teach Geometry? Because they just don't understand what their job is; i.e., they are a bunch of megalomaniacs who know very little about teaching and learning. They teach it because..."We've always taught it." These people are taking up my kids' valuable time, filling them with stuff they will never use--when there's SO much useful stuff they could be doing.


Read the Follow-up Responses to this Rant:

  • Follow-up 1 Knowledge is Power!
  • Follow-up 2 Tommy: Ushering in the new Dark Ages?
  • Follow-up 3 Math is Beautiful
  • Follow-up 4 Something is rotten in the state of education
  • Follow-up 5 The Many Uses of Math
  • Follow-up 6 And a Note from the Likeminded
  • Follow-up 7 Mysticism vs. Mathematics
  • Follow-up 8 Oh, so THAT's what math is for...
  • Follow-up 9 Ah those horse and buggy days...
  • Follow-up 10 Math professors = anal-retentive whiners and crybabies?
  • Follow-up 11 A 12-step program for those traumatized by mathematics?
  • Follow-up 12 Now Isn't THAT Interesting...
  • Follow-up 13 Some Inside Information
  • Follow-up 14 Why pick on math?
  • Follow-up 15 Stop Sabotaging Civilization!
  • Follow-up 16 Hey Tommy, get a life!
  • Follow-up 17 Perhaps Tommy Needs a New Perspective
  • Follow-up 18 So, someone else actually agrees with Tommy

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