Most of you have never heard of it but those of us who lived it will never forget it. The New Math. The year was 1965, I was 11 years old. I was not the brightest kid in my small country school but I wasn’t the dumbest either. Up to that point, I liked math. Found math interesting. But then The New Math hit like a numeric tsunami and it would be years before many of us came up for air.
What was The New Math? Well, in the 1960’s American educators were afraid that the US had fallen behind the Soviet Union in the race to outer space. American leadership was convinced that our Cold War enemies were way ahead of us in science and technology because we weren’t as smart at math. So, in the interest of fixing what seemed broken, the powers-that-be implemented a new approach to teaching children math. Enter The New Math. This unorthodox method was designed to supercharge kids math skills and win the Space Race and save democracy. Good plan, huh? Nope. Total fail.
Turns out The New Math curriculum was practically impossible to understand. Ten years after its implementation, test scores showed that American students had become less capable of doing math. Famously, several top engineering educators, after they tried unsuccessfully to help their own kids with math homework, led the charge to rethink The New Math movement. Gratefully, teachers were able to go back to the old approach to teaching math.
So, what does this failed educational fad teach us? I’ll offer you a few insights as I look back on an ill-advised solution that was supposed to be really helpful. You’ll notice that none of these great lessons involves numbers:
- Sometimes when you think you’re making things better, you’re not. The initial motivation of The New Math seemed reasonable. Let’s get smarter than the Soviets at math. Problem was: Our old math system wasn’t broken and the Soviets weren’t smarter than us. Only four years after the introduction of The New Math, we put Americans on the Moon. Ummm…The New Math didn’t help us accomplish that great feat. Those of us trained in the first wave of The New Math were still in high school when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface. The brains behind the moon landing were trained in old math. Oops. Not the first time someone made things worse while promising to make them better, huh?
- Sometimes when you think you’re making people smarter, you’re actually making them dumber. Years ago I counseled a computer guy who was sent for counseling because his boss didn’t know what else to do with him. This smart techie guy with low emotional intelligence worked at the IT help desk. Unfortunately, his version of helping people with computer problems was to explain the history of information technology and how algorithms work in binary formats. He scoffed at the idea that people asking for his assistance really only needed to know which keys to hit to solve their problems. The end result of his making people smarter about computers actually helped them know less. Oops. Not the first time an expert made a simple process so complicated that we walked away knowing less after their explanation.
- Sometimes you just gotta outlive the devastation of a bad idea. For me, The New Math set in motion a series of educational setbacks that took me years to overcome. Because my math grades fell in 6th grade, I was assigned to “dummy” math in middle school. I was placed in a “not college material” track of study. It took a while but I survived those obstacles and went onto a fairly successful academic career. The negative impact of most seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time experiments usually don’t last forever. If you just hang in there long enough, the law of “this too shall pass” grinds away the damage. And realistically, having to work harder till that grinding runs its course actually makes us stronger, more resilient people.
I will offer you one notable exception to the above rules. Check out 1 Corinthians Chapter 12’s promise of a “more excellent way.” The Love Chapter describes the identifying trademark of all Christ followers: We will be known by our unusual and unqualified love. A fallen world is dominated by expressions of hate. By contrast, the DNA of the Spirit is love. It has no fellowship with contempt and cruelty. This obligation to love (Romans 13:8) has no exemptions and no caveats. Loving well will not make you smarter but it will allow you to more accurately represent the One who bestowed it on us in Christ Jesus.
Something to consider on this fortnight.