"Do you think kids twenty years from now are going to have to know the times tables?" he asked. "I don't think so. They'll have a hand calculator that's as big as a credit card." ..."The real illiterates of the future," say Brookhart, "will be those who can't make wise choices from a series of complex choices, not somebody who can't read or write."
Peoria Journal Star, August 8, 1987
Here we go again. Every month or so, some reader sends us a newspaper clipping in which a school superintendent says something asinine. How long can this go on? Where will it all end? And when, oh when, will some school superintendent say something that is not only asinine but also new? And refreshing?
The printed circuits of the school superintendent network are slower than those of the pocket calculator. This Brookhart guy, for instance, is about fifteen years late in inventing his wheel. No matter. He'll get some mileage out of it. It serves first as a sop to the sillier parents, when they ask how it happens that their children have spent nine years in schools and still don't know whether seven times six is a two-digit number.
"Hey, hey," says the all-knowing school superintendent, "don't you lay persons realize that only X years from now nobody will be put to the trouble of multiplying at all?" And who's to doubt the word of a "professional"?
And when X years roll around, sure enough, nobody is put to that trouble, because the schools still aren't asking the children to learn the times table.
But the momentous calculator prophecy serves an even deeper purpose. It lays the groundwork for that day in which arithmetic teachers will disappear from the land -- partly as a result of the educationistic prejudice against all courses in which right answers can actually be found, partly because education majors are exactly the kind of people who are delighted not to learn silly stuff like the times table, and partly because people whose minds are amenable to the disciplines of mathematics just don't much care to hang around with the people you find in the schools. In that day, school superintendents can say, "No sweat. For the money we used to spend on math teachers we can hand out calculators and hire whole slews of Wise Choice Facilitators and have enough left over to give my wife and children jobs."
And, indeed, when "somebody who can't read or write" has to make one of those "wise choices," where will he turn but to a Wise Choice Facilitator, a professional fresh from an education academy, a government employee, a loyal union member, and, of course, a non-multiplier. The WCF will pass on to the poor sap whatever he needs to know to make a WC.
Brookhart, naturally, puts us in mind of Socrates, and the strange thing he said to Callicles, who thought himself a superior sort of person, and thus entitled to more wealth and power than he had yet acquired. "It is your neglect of geometry," said Socrates," that leads you to want a greater share than other men." The Brookharts of this world, having never thought about it, assume that things like geometry and the multiplication table are taught in schools only out of tradition, and they are easily seduced into believing that such arts are useless to those who aren't going to make some money from them.
But in fact the mathematical arts are the best studies in which to learn certain truths that are essential to the making of wise choices. It is in mathematics that we most readily see that the permanent relationship between principle and necessity is not subject to appeal, that every particular is a local manifestation of some universal, that there is a demonstrable difference between what we believe and what we know, and that experience can never do the work of logic. It is in mathematical studies that a child (provided that there be a true teacher, and not a Brookhart) can have his first inkling of Justice and Truth, and of the immense and momentous difference between the laws and Lawfulness.
In all mathematical studies, furthermore, there lies the answer (although that is not exactly the right word) to the most potent pseudo-question with which the values vampires like to show how liberal they are. "Ah, yes, of course, we must teach values, but we must decide whose values to teach."
Bunk. Values do not vary from tribe to tribe. We do not properly say that dishonesty is "a value" among thieves and congressmen, but "not a value" among elderly Quaker ladies. We do not say that treachery is OK if you live among traitors, or that cowardice is a value that you might like to espouse as an alternative life style. We might all do well to expel the word "values" for a while and look, not just for another word, which would surely be subject to the same degeneration, but for some other way in which to think.
It must be in that other way that Socrates was thinking when he ascribed the ambition and greed of Callicles to a neglect of geometry. Any man who has not done his geometry may not ever have seen the beauty of the just and proportionate relationship of the parts to the whole, and, thus, might well end up seeking not that estate in this life that is right for him, but that after which his appetite cries.
A child who has never explored the inexorable infinity of the times table may never see the difference between those things that are in his power to change and those that are in no one's power to change. And a Brookhart who thinks that things unequal to the same thing are equal to the same thing is not the man whose help to ask when you need to make a wise choice.
Wise choices do not require us to choose between "values," between honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, sense and nonsense. No one asks: Which shall I do, justice or injustice? They require us rather to understand whether and why this deed is honest or dishonest, courageous or cowardly, these words sense or nonsense, this thought just or unjust. They require a clear, and truly literate, statement of principle, and a truly logical analysis of particulars, an accurate knowledge of the "given," and a lively respect for all those laws against which there is no hope of appeal. And if the study of the mathematical arts does not in fact bring forth the habits and powers that would one day help anyone who is truly in search of a wise choice, and not just trying to justify what he has already decided to do, that is a reflection not on those arts but upon the teachers of those arts. Of them, as well as of all the Brookharts who govern them, there is really no point in saying of them that they are just not very good at what they do, at mathematics, or providing others with the best possible conditions in which to teach mathematics. The more important point, in fact, the only truly important point, is that they are obviously doing what they do with something other than the love of wisdom in mind. Without that, a teacher is of no worth at all.
If that seems to you a preposterously unrealistic expectation in a government school functionary, you're right. So which would we do better without: the love of wisdom, or herds of government school functionaries? Get out your calculator and make a wise choice.