The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

THE POINT, PLEASE: Our lives are full of otherwise pointless activities, most of them designed to keep our minds busy as we wait for the undertaker to shovel us under, and some of these pointless activities are even more pointless than others, if such a thing is possible. No one can explain why this is so; some of the greatest minds in human history have grappled with this deep philosophical question only to throw up their hands and their lunch at the end of the day and take up something simpler, like Parcheesi or special relativity. And yet we keep at it, hoping against hope that somehow, in some way, the point of some of the more pointless things we do will become clear to us, which defeats the purpose of the exercise, when you think about it, since the point of pointlessness is to be pointless; if you had a point you wouldn’t be pointless, although that may not be true of some Democrats.

One of the many pointless things we must all endure is, of course, higher mathematics. Now you’re saying to yourself, that guy’s all wet, math is important. I agree, math is important, which is something I wouldn’t have said in the fourth grade except under extreme duress. I hated math then, hated it with a deep and abiding passion; I am a poster child for the victims of that 1960’s phenomenon, the New Math, which differed from the old math only in its complete and utter incomprehensibility to the elementary school mind. I think the idea behind the thing was to make math enjoyable and easy for to students to learn; if that was the case it didn’t work. Before the New Math mathematics was a difficult subject that required an intense effort for students to grasp; after the New Math reared its ugly head the teachers told us that math was now officially a difficult subject that was fun to learn, an oxymoron that grated on our elementary school minds like someone pouring a bottle of ketchup on a piece of liver and telling us that the result was a hamburger with everything on it.

So when I got to high school I was, without a doubt, the most innumerate product of the parochial schools ever to show my face in the halls. The guidance counselor, noting that I’d flunked math in every grade since Sister Mary Julian whacked across the back of the head for not knowing what two time three was back in the second grade; Sister Mary Julian did not like teaching little boys—she thought that little girls were the closest thing to the cherubim or the seraphim, I forget which is the alleged female of the angelic species, that anyone could find in this fallen and sinful world; little boys, on the other hand, were imps of Satan and suppression was the order of the day in dealing with them and all of their works. In the meantime, the guidance counselor, who was being very nice about waiting for the digression into the psychological roots of my inability to perform all but the simplest mathematical functions to end, has gone for a cup of coffee and hasn’t come back yet, which means, I think, that he probably stopped for a raspberry danish as well. If he were here, though, he’d bring up how he told me to take General Math, the math course recommended for those of us whose mathematical intelligence ended when we ran out of body parts to count.

Consistency, Emerson wrote, is the hobgoblin of small minds. I am not sure if that means that consistency is something favored by the small minded, since they cannot grasp anything other than the familiar rut they are in, or that consistency is something that the small minded fear for reasons that I am not sure I grasp, so I am not sure if my consistency in flunking General Math is a philosophically good thing or not. My mother didn’t think so at the time; I could tell from the way her face turned purple when she took a look at my report card; and I know that failing General Math marked me, in that horrific way that teenagers fear, with my classmates. I was, at the time, the first and only student in the history of our happy little burg’s high school ever to fail General Math, a class designed by some of the best minds in the education world to pass the most determined innumerate on to the next grade. I endured the strange stares of my classmates, who looked at me with that curious mixture of pity, contempt, and awe that one usually reserves for circus freaks or unreconstructed Marxists. Humiliated by my failure, I took a college track algebra course the next year and passed, thereby fulfilling my math requirement. I passed mainly because some kids broke into a yeshiva in Brooklyn that year and copied all of the college track final exams (they’re called Regents tests in New York) and then sold them all over the state; that year the State Education Department passed everyone taking a college track course, and a good thing, too, since otherwise I’d still be in the tenth grade.

It was there in algebra that the utter pointlessness of the subject matter first dawned on me. At the time I asked the teacher what the whole point of algebra was, since I would never need to use it. She defended the study of mathematics with deep intellectual subtlety, telling me that the point of algebra class was to pass and then move on to trigonometry and pre-calculus, but I should say that in the thirty years since I took that course no one has ever asked me if 3x + 9y (21w-7)=12, what does x represent and my guess is that no one ever will. For the most complex math problems in my life I pay a nice lady from Westchester seventy-five dollars and she struggles with my 1040 for me. I got a nice refund this year, too.


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