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Education Reporter

Kick Calculators Out of Class

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By David Gelernter
Reprinted with permission from the New York Post, c 1998, NYP Holdings, Inc.

They should be banned from American elementary schools. We could kick calculators out tomorrow if we wanted to, and the education establishment could not stop us if we'd made up our minds. The practical gain would be large, the symbolic value even greater.

If you hand a child a calculator, you must take care that it is used judiciously or the result could be catastrophic: an adult who can't do basic arithmetic. Such a person is condemned to stumble through life's numeric moments in a haze.

The calculator subtly undermines the whole math curriculum: walking to school isn't bad if you do it every day - but if you sometimes ride, walking can start to seem like a pain. And "once the calculator goes on," says Mike McKeown, a geneticist at the Salk Institute in San Diego, "the brain goes off, no matter what we hope." McKeown is a co-founder of Mathematically Correct, a group that lobbies for common sense in math education.

My generation of schoolchildren mostly learned the times tables in second grade. (Japanese children still do.) You can't proceed to long multiplication and division, and fractions and decimals, without knowing the times tables. But at the school my kids attend in Connecticut, students don't master the times tables until fourth grade. In the meantime they burn lots of class hours learning something other than basic arithmetic. Have they mastered some marvelous new kind of mathematics? Not so you'd notice.

Teachers and principals who defend calculators make this argument: they're cheap, handy and accurate. To the extent we allow children to rely on them, teachers needn't waste time on basic arithmetic - and can proceed faster and deeper into more advanced terrain.

As most parents realize, this is nonsense. If you haven't mastered basic arithmetic by hand, you can't do arithmetic at all - with or without calculators. Calculators are reliable but people aren't; they hit wrong keys. You can't solve a problem unless you start with a general idea of the right answer. Otherwise you don't catch your errors - and you and your calculator are a menace.

But suppose you're perfect; you never hit wrong keys. Even so, if you can't do arithmetic manually, you can't do it mentally; and you'll need to do rough mental arithmetic all the time. How long ago did that happen? When will I arrive? How much cash will that leave me? What do I tip?

You encounter such problems shopping, strolling, driving, paying the cabdriver. Yes, you could whip out your calculator on such occasions - and you could skip learning how to drive and simply consult the owner's manual each time you needed to make a right turn. Is that what we want for our children?

It comes down to this: Knowledge you can look up is knowledge you don't have.

To be educated is to master a body of facts and skills and have them on call 24 hours a day, as you talk and walk and read and work and garden and scheme and think. You can't master everything, but after many centuries of mulling we are agreed on a time-tested agenda - reading, writing, history and basic arithmetic.

The yawning chasm between ed-school doctrine and common sense has already swallowed up - to our national shame - a whole generation of American kids. We have deeper educational problems, but the electronic calculator perfectly captures what the struggle is about. When you hand children automatic, know-it-all crib sheets, you undermine learning. So let's get rid of them.

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