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Fun with Numbers

In his important 1988 book, Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch warned that "children in the U.S. are being deprived of the basic knowledge that would enable them to function in contemporary society."

Two decades later, we see the tragic results of our near-total failure to heed Hirsch's alarm. The basic information that most high school and college graduates don't know continues to astound those of us of all ages who managed to receive a pretty decent, often non-public education. In the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's 2008 test of civic literacy, gauging citizens' "knowledge of America's founding principles and texts, core history, and enduring institutions," 71% failed. (The 33-question test is here. It isn't that tough.)

That there has been a steep decline in basic math skills during the same time period is no secret to anyone who has taught classes to young adults and quietly gasped upon seeing many of them reach for their calculators so they could perform a division as easy as 72 by 9. Many of them literally cower in fear at the thought of completing a math "word problem."

In 1989, the year after Hirsch's book appeared, according to a November 14, 2006, New York Times article, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the nation's leading group of math teachers, introduced "standards" that "let children explore their own solutions to problems, write and draw pictures about math, and use tools like the calculator." This move, properly derided as "fuzzy math," contributed mightily to the nation's basic skills decay. One parent quoted by the Times reported being told by a teacher that "we don't teach long division; it stifles their creativity."

Though it would be easy to exaggerate its significance, it seems that there has been a bit of a rebirth of interest in basic math. If so, it's coming none too late, because nature abhors a vacuum. Those who wish to capitalize on a math-ignorant populace are only too eager to fill it. Many of the void-fillers work in government or for "advocacy groups."

Applying basic math to recent news reports can unearth very useful information. Here, phrased as those dreaded "word problems," are four such examples (numbers are rounded in some cases to make calculating the results easier).

Problem 1: Chrysler sold 79,000 vehicles in May during 26 selling days. During the month, before 800 dealers were terminated, it had 3,200 dealers. How many cars did the average Chrysler dealer sell per selling day in May?

Answer: Less than one (79,000 ÷ 26 ÷ 3,200 = 0.95).

Comments: That really makes you wonder what your billions of tax dollars are subsidizing, doesn't it? Even with the dealer reductions, if overall sales volume stays the same, the average Chrysler dealer will be selling about 1.27 cars a day. Big whoop.