Friday, February 17, 2006

Still Angry About Cohen

What really rubs me the wrong way about Cohen's paean to innumeracy is that I see the same thing all the time at work. Regulars know I work at a bookstore, and you'd be surprised how many people come in with a simple question and need a reference material. When I say, "boy, you could find that on the Internet really quick" I frequently get this response, or a variation on it:

"I don't use computers, and I never will."

Seriously. In 2006, in an industrialized country, adults say this to me with a straight face. Regularly.

Now, I'm not an absolutist. If you don't like computers, can't afford one, don't think they're necessary, whatever, that's fine. What bothers me is that these people say this with such an obnoxious - and obvious - pride in their voices, as if they're superior to me because they lack a skill I have.

These are, of course, the same people who insist that reading is a moral obligation for anyone who wants to consider themselves at all intelligent. I think reading is important, and I think math is important, but I also think knowing how to use a computer is important. I don't think lacking either skill would necessarily make you a bad person.

What bothers me about Cohen's piece isn't just his satisfaction with his inability to do basic division. (Hello? Percentages?) It's the obnoxious pride he seems to take in tearing down people who are better than him at math. Not being great at math doesn't make you a worse person by any stretch, but it certainly doesn't make you a better one, either.

Just to state the converse, I certainly don't think people should be forced to do higher math, either. In this limited sense, I agree with about 5% of Cohen's article. In fact, I think we probably do way more harm to our children by forcing them in to roles they don't want to fill. As just one example, my early adolescence was miserable until my Dad gave up on the idea of me playing team sports. (I started swimming, instead.) Or, to use my bookstore again, I feel really sorry for the kids whose parents are always trying to force them to read "real books" instead of the magazines, comics, or whatever the kid actually enjoys reading. And Jason is absolutely right when he says (in comments) that if logic is what we want to teach, then we should just teach logic.

Alright, I think I'm done venting my spleen.

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