The New 'New Math'

New math: Popularized in the 1960s, it's the idea that the way math was being taught to American school children needed to be fundamentally restructured. The Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik made it "obvious," the U.S. was playing catch-up with mathematically and scientifically more advanced commies.

As a post-Sputnik kid who attended private Episcopal and Catholic schools, I wasn't taught any of that "new math" stuff. But I'm told it has to do with putting an early education emphasis on abstract mathematical concepts like set theory and number bases other than 10.

Don't ask me what that means. When I was in school, my regrettable view of math -- beyond the basics -- was pretty much in line with Kronecker: "God made the integers, all the rest is the work of man."

Actually, algebra convinced me that the whole idea was to make pliant students jump through hoops, like little Pavlov dogs, based on a dead mathematician having arbitrarily chosen to make x = something + some(thing).

Like many other ignorant students, I was foolish enough to ask: Why do we even have to take algebra? What does it have to do with real life? I remember my teacher saying: "It teaches us how to think."

"Yeah, but how does it teach us how to think?"

I don't remember his response to that question, but I got the impression he thought I was wasting valuable class time with my thinking. After all, none of the other kids were asking: "Yeah, but how and why?"

Now, geometry was another story. I found it to be easy, as in, I didn't have to study for tests and missed a few homework assignments after unilaterally deciding it was mere busy work, and I still got a B+.

My attitude toward geometry was: This obviously applies to the "real world." And you mean to tell me, all this is fundamentally arguing about proofs and theorems?! Where do I sign up? The elders in my family didn't call me "Philadelphia lawyer" at the ripe old age of 5 for nothing.

It wasn't until my post-school daze that I acquired a taste for books about math, especially books about the philosophy of mathematics. I suppose that's why Craig Damrauer's recently published "New Math: Equations for Living" caught my attention. After reading his small book, I was inspired to become a new "new" mathematician myself.

With wit and humor, Damrauer gives mathematical expression to unspoken nuances of contemporary life in America.

For example: Brunch = Breakfast + Lunch + Cantaloupe. Rumor = distance/truth. Office workers = Ants - 4 legs - 2 feelers. Santa Claus = The Tooth Fairy + 250 lbs. Compassion = What if that were me?/I'm glad that's not me.

You get the idea. He's also got a Web site , where he hosts periodic contests. He gives one part of the equation and solicits submissions for the other side of the equation.

The most recent equation contest is: "Influence = ...."

I submitted several, including, influence = lobbyist + Super Bowl tickets.

Then I did the math and decided to shamelessly take advantage of having a column. The second part of the contest is to "cajole the greatest number of people to enter the contest as well. You'll do this by e-mailing your friends, enemies and hangers on and telling them to enter the contest (bcc so that the judging committee may verify said e-mail.)

You'll get credit for your influence when a person you e-mailed enters the contest. You'll also get style credit for the writing in your e-mail."

So, I cajole you. Enter the contest and help me prove my newest new math equations: winning hearts and minds = doing the unexpected - military occupation. And: true power = convincing great numbers of people to work together for a common purpose - threat of physical violence.

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