To Marian Kester Coombs’ article (“Dumb and Number,” October) on the dumbing-down of math standards, I say, “Hear, hear.” In fact, the complaint about the downgrading of mathematical knowledge is gathering strength among mathematicians as well as the public. I hear anecdotes all the time of a freshman who, asked to divide 387 by ten, takes out his calculator.

But on Coombs’ other pitch—concerning the feminist victory in the schools and in the Department of Education, and the feminist slant on valid knowledge having effected the present unsatisfactory standards of K-12 math education—I see other historical threads leading to the present situation. Mathematicians have always been unhappy at the public lack of understanding of any but the most basic mathematics. It seems to us that insight into the reasoning by which mathematical truths have been developed would help the world walk a little straighter. Thus in the era of “The New Math” (1955-72) we used our temporary influence to cause the creation and over-advertising of curricula that would accomplish this feat. As it turned out, the curriculum itself was flawed by lack of understanding of how it would play out when it got into the trenches; the result was a disaster. It was a convenient excuse for those hellbent on downgrading algorithms and memorization, and it ended up blamed for much that was not in it.

The reaction, dubbed “Back to Basics,” kicked off by the National Institute of Education, was similarly criticized. The results were worse than the New Math.

The current vision of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), as expressed (oh, so badly) in the 1989 Standards, is a reaction to the “Back to Basics” reaction, and I believe it would have taken place in the total absence of feminism. Many of the writers of the new standards were themselves intimately involved, though as quite young men, in the New Math, and saw its failure. The lesson they took from that failure was narrow: they are not repeating quite the same things for which the New Math was publicly damned. Still, some form of “understanding” is attempted, to the detriment, down in the trenches, of drill, memory, facts, and standard procedures.

There is one significant difference between the New Math revolution and the New New Math one: the mathematicians are not in the game this time, having given up the field to educators, i.e., professors of math education in the colleges that prepare K-12 teachers, their mentors in education research, and the officialdom of the teaching profession in the NEA, NCTM, and the state education departments.

        —Ralph A. Raimi
Department of Mathematics
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY