Friday, February 17, 2006

Washington Post's Pundit, Cohen, Celebrates Stupidity


By Elaine Meinel Supkis

Once again, the editorial pages of a top newspaper is used to proclaim the utility of being stone stupid. Mr. Cohen's inability to use logic and forethought meant he couldn't learn even simple algebra or even percentages. He is proud of his poverty of mind and thinks this is a great way to think. I explain why it is not a good idea.

From the Washington Post:
The L.A. school district now requires all students to pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry in order to graduate. This is something new for Los Angeles (although 17 states require it) and it is the sort of vaunted education reform that is supposed to close the science and math gap and make the U.S. more competitive. All it seems to do, though, is ruin the lives of countless kids. In L.A., more kids drop out of school on account of algebra than any other subject. I can hardly blame them.

I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time -- the only proof I've ever seen of divine intervention -- somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again. I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry while I busied myself learning how to type. In due course, this came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever took.
I was at the top of my class in America, even had spent a summer taking university level courses at Kansas University and I won a scholarship to study in a German Gymnasium. Going to school in Europe was an eye-opener. The yawning chasm between where I was in math and science as well as literature compared to what was required in Europe was nearly a hopeless barrier for me. I had to demand the teachers grade me because they were too embarrassed to let me know how far behind I was. After huge struggles, I managed to begin to catch up only to come back to America and discover I was way ahead of my fellow university students at the freshman level and got permission to take much higher courses.

"Dumbing down" is a slippery slope. After Bush, the dumbest man on earth after Cheney, demanded we have more science, more math, a poll of parents of high school students was done and,57% of parents polled thought we are doing just fine in school and we need no changes. What Mr. Cohen wants are fake diplomas so students can go to college and fail there, too. The WP pays him a lot of money to say irrational or stupid things so I suppose he imagines everyone will be kicked upstairs if only we just ask them to not bother their pretty little heads over trivial stuff like math.

I yell every day about numbers and amounts and point in despair at where graphs are going, how plotting out mathematical forms clearly show danger because we can't ignore the numbers and here we are, fuzzy numbers hiding reality!

The history of the words for counting things and figuring them out, "math" and "reckon" and "number" have a revealing history. Let's start with "math." In ancient Rome, the word for mind was "mens" and indeed, there is a connection between "math" and "mind". You can't do one without the other! In Greek, the word "menos" meant spirit and it is the root of the Greek word for "remember".

The oldest roots of this word are Sanskrit. "Manas" is "mind" and "medha" means "intelligent." This is, in turn, connected with words concerning meadows and hay. A "matha" in Sanskrit means "straw hut" which is where the intellectual would sit and think for this is the name for Hindi monastaries. Note the "monas" here, too!

"Number" comes via the Latin word for "nimble". " Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick," sort of agility. In Old High German, the word mutated into "to take" which I suppose reflected a past history of taking things from Romans, back at the beginning of the Dark Ages? Anyway, going way back to long ago when animals were just beginning to be domesticated on the great plains of Eurasia, the word "nemein" which is the ancestor of word "number" meant "meadow" or "pasture" and "ordering the distribution of various sheep or cows." Those who could count controlled the tally of animals and assigned their proper order in herding them about.

All of which is deeply connected to kinship relationships, religion and dynastic controls.

"Rational" comes from the obvious thing: to divvy up something. It is closely akin, in thought, to "number" in the sense of deciding who gets how many and apportioning land according to various formulae. In Old Frisian, "reathe" means to prove your case in the various Allthings. In Old High German, it means to bring matters to an accounting (note the word "count" here!). In Greek it becomes "arariskein" which means to fit, to shape something, molding it to the body which spawns the word "arms" and "armor". Namely, the rational mind is one that can build a suit of bronze armor and since this is heavy, heavier than steel!--in the bronze age, it had to fit snuggly. I have fought in steel armor and if it is loose or ill fitting, it becomes a great burden but being able to forge and hammer steel, I cunningly shaped each piece to fit snuggly and closely to my limbs and chest so they rode lightly, comparatively speaking.

To do this requires intelligence and care and all the words having to do with calculations and math are words frought with needing intelligence, using the mind, being sane and careful, proper handling of animals and materials, figuring out how to use these jointly.

This is why the inability of our government to function, the inability of businesses to function, we see a nation wide collapse in rationality. The numbers don't add up at all, they are way out of whack and growing worse by the hour and we are told, numbers don't matter, don't project them into the future, don't think! Stop being rational! We are happy with this deadly status quo!

It is like pasturage: the tendency to overgraze, to poison the pastures, is very strong. All of Africa is being turned into desert by out of control herding done by tribes that have no more control over their rational use of the land. Everyone strives to have as many sheep or goats or cattle as possible. And since raiding is now controlled by the states, the herding is out of control since there are no tribes of raiders redistributing the animals, mostly by killing them and selling or eating the parts.

In Medieval Europe, many lawsuits, laws, regulations and directives were passed out by the nobility to control the peasants, what they raised, in what numbers, how to distribute all this. Mostly, the nobles killed each other and the peasantry, it was the simplest solution for untrained minds which simply went bezerk when they gazed upon a neighbor's flock.

But the Church liked percentages and divvying up everything, they were semi-communistic and wanted x amount of y divided by 3, for example, which is where the "Baa baa black sheep have you any wool" nursery rhyme is all about. "One for my lord and one for my dame and one for the little boy down the lane (which was the Church, by the way)". So the Church elevated Mathematics to one of the highest callings and they strove hard to resurrect it from the mess of the Dark Ages where counting consisted of, "One for me and none for you, two for me and, forget it, *whack*." The shifty Venetians, living on very limited lands, sucked up as much math as they could over the years and spent some pretty happy days starting with the Second Crusade, making bad deals with illiterate, unnumbered kings and emperors. They had a hard time trying to not be cheated which takes me back to today.

We are being cheated because we are kept stupid concerning numbers and numbers matter and I wish people would start being rational and take off those shoes and count on the fingers and toes...we are being cheated!

And Cohen should be fired. But then, he is counting on a lifetime paycheck from the Washington Post.

On an aside here, the BBC reports babies can count. From the BBC:
Babies have a rudimentary grasp of maths long before they can walk or talk, according to new research.
By the age of seven months infants have an abstract sense of numbers and are able to match the number of voices they hear with the number of faces they see.
I think we should put some toddlers in Congress. Maybe they can do the budget for us. So long as we outlaw giving them lollypops by lobbyists.


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