This is the first of many conversations I’ll be having with myself this semester on this subject.
William Say, Matt. I heard you were teaching this semester. Where?
Matt At a place Russell Kirk would have called “Behemoth U.” A good school with a fine reputation.
William Lot of students, eh?
Matt More than you can shake a diploma at.
William What are you teaching?
Matt Statistics, of course, a mid-level Calculus section, and a class that can best be described as Math For Those Who Cannot Do Math.
William What’s that?
Matt Everybody has to have a math credit to graduate, and this is one of the courses designed to give that credit. Everybody is supposed to be able to solve algebraic equations before enrolling.
William Can they?
Matt They cannot. First day of class, I gave them this one for fun (all answers were anonymous):
(3x – 7)/4 = x + 4.
William How’d they do?
Matt About 15% figured it out. Most wrong answers were, let us say, curious. But mostly they just didn’t attempt it.
William College is about learning, you know. No doubt, they’ll refresh their memories as the semester continues. Not everybody can remember high school algebra on command.
Matt I also asked them, “What is one-third of one-half?”
William They must have done better on that one.
Matt Sure. About 20% got it. The wrong answers were confusing. Some said 1/7, a few said, 1/8, 1/4, 1/16. One said “1.3333”. But most didn’t answer.
William I don’t like your tone. This is the first day math class for people who just aren’t good at math. Some people aren’t, you know.
Matt Yes, some people aren’t. But you know, I also asked these questions to the other classes, and those had stronger mathematical prerequisites. More knew the answers, but only in the calculus class did a majority do well.
William See? There’s hope!
Matt Yeah, but all of the students in the calculus class should have answered correctly, not just most.
William I still think you’re being too harsh. This was the first day.
Matt I also asked them the year the American Civil War started.
William You asked math students that? That’s obviously not fair.
Matt Are you telling me that college students shouldn’t know the answer?
William Well, not quite. But not everybody will remember the exact year.
Matt One student said 1954.
William Obviously a typo.
Matt Didn’t look like one. Others said 1701, 1740, “1770s”, 1779, 1846, 1887, 1945. Most just didn’t answer, but a few jotted down “who cares?”, or something like “This is statistics?”
William Well, it isn’t statistics you know. Students wouldn’t think to come prepared to class to answer questions on history.
Matt Only a handful knew the exact date; about 10% knew it plus or minus 10 years.
William Come on. They just weren’t ready.
Matt Want me to tell you the answers they gave me to, “In what year did the French Revolution begin?”
William I think we can skip it.
Matt Good thing, because I had the idea from the answers that they had never heard of the event.
William It’s the fault of the high schools. They were probably never taught.
Matt I can’t disagree with you, but don’t you think that college students should know the answer, even just to name the proper century?
William They’ll probably learn as they go along.
Matt I was happiest with the answer to, “Who wrote the play King Lear?” More than half, spelling aside, knew.
William So it’s not all bad news.
Matt But almost nobody knew who wrote Paradise Lost.
William High school again. They almost never teach poetry.
Matt They did better with naming a composer who worked in the eighteenth century. Those who knew, about two thirds, said either Mozart or Beethoven.
William That must have pleased you.
Matt Not one person—not one in all the classes—knew who Thucydides was. Some guessed, “Greek mathematician.”
William Obviously, then, these are clever kids. They knew that you were a mathematician and were thus likely to ask about other famous ones.
Matt But, of course, I didn’t.
William I suppose not. It is a hard question, though.
Matt Only if you don’t know the answer.
William Oh, that makes a lot of sense.
Matt I asked them what was the last book they read, which wasn’t assigned to them. About half gave answers. My Bookie Wook (which is a real book), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Harry Potter series, Quiet Strength, many in the Twilight series, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and similar others.
William At least they’re reading.
Matt One wrote, “I don’t like reading.”
Matt This is the same statistics student who answered 16.6 for the multiplying fractions question.
William Like I said, not everybody…
Matt And for the algebra question this student said, “I don’t do algebra.”
William Maybe he was having a bad day.