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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 08, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Math, English, and Men in Black

Even though I'm far away from Greensboro right now, teaching a writing workshop in Orem, Utah, rumors have reached me that our inimitable Guilford County School Board has decided to make high school even more of a waste of time for the vast majority of our students.

I speak, of course, of the decision to require four years of math for all high school students.

This is supposed to make our students "more competitive" in the college market.

Ha ha.

Students who want to be competitive in the admissions game already have the option of taking four years of math if they want to.

The real goal is to try to "improve" the statistical reports that people use to make superficial judgments of Guilford County Schools.

In short, this is about making the school board and the administration look good. It most certainly is not about improving the education of our children.

If that was what they had in mind, they would ruthlessly fire all the people in the administration whose main job is holding meetings and filing reports and requiring people to make reports to them.

Then they would spend the money saved to hire teachers and build classroom space.

Let's look at what four years of math means.

If you pass Algebra I in freshman year, then what do you take the remaining four years?

Divide it up how you want, the fact is that they will be forcing high school students to take calculus by their senior year -- for the only way to avoid it would be to start in a remedial math class or fail one of their years of math.

Calculus. Useful if you want to be an engineer, a physicist, a statistician, an economist, a mathematician, a math teacher.

Absolutely useless if you intend to be a lawyer, an artist, a fireman, a mechanic, an English teacher, a contractor, or if you plan to go into business.

Stockbrokers don't use calculus. Nor do politicians. How many of our school board members can honestly say they have ever used or even needed to use calculus since leaving school?

How many of them have any clue how to do calculus in the first place?

For that matter, what good has trigonometry done them? How often does that come up in daily life?

Think about it. How many times have you needed to say "sine" or "cosine," except when you meant "sign" and "cosign." And if you don't know the difference, has it set you back in life?

If they actually wanted high school to be about education, they'd allow students more, not less, freedom to choose electives and broaden their learning.

But they don't. They are shaping our children's educational experience, not for the children, but for the ability to point to "quality" statistics so they can impress us with phony figures about how much math education our students are getting.

When it comes to math, more is less, not more. Requiring four years of math will make most students loathe mathematics even more than they already do. It will not make their lives better in any way.

Try freedom. There's actually a place for it in education.

Unfortunately, it doesn't show up in the stats.

It only shows up in the lives of the graduates.


Speaking of education: If the school board is going to require anything, why not require students to learn the difference between lay and lie, or when to use the objective case of pronouns?

Unlike math, English will be needed every day of their lives, and if they don't know how to use it properly it can set them back in almost any walk of life.

Right now, however, compelling students to take more English would be a waste of time, for the teaching of English in American schools is an embarrassment, and more years of it would only make our students worse.

Most teachers of literature train their students to believe that any book that is "good," they will hate, and any book they actually enjoy is escapist trash.

Most who teach writing make students hate it because they have to produce first drafts and second drafts of everything.

Second drafts should only be written when there is something substantively wrong with the first draft. Otherwise, second drafts suck all the life out of the writing and turn a pleasant, natural style into a stilted, artificial one.

And when it comes to grammar, few English teachers even know what it is, let alone try to teach it.

I know what a bad job our schools are doing of teaching fundamental language skills because I get their graduates in my writing classes.

But I don't blame the English teachers. The teaching of English collapsed thirty years ago. We are in the second or third generation of English teachers who have not been taught English. How can they teach the language properly when nobody taught it to them?

I'm saddened by how few English teachers I meet can properly parse a sentence.

There are only a few who know both of the reasons why saying, "There's no reason for you and I to worry about grammar," should embarrass the English teacher who says it.

And the saddest fact of all is that most of the English teachers I talk to know that they're doing a terrible job of teaching English to their students. They would like to do better. But few school boards value little things like practical writing skills or intensive grammar classes, so the teachers can't improve the curriculum even if they know how.

They'd rather leave their graduates sounding ignorant every time they speak -- while making them take classes in mathematics they will never, ever use as long as they live.


As for the teaching of geography and history ... don't get me started.

Our children are getting a pretty lousy education, despite the best efforts of sincere, hardworking teachers -- but the problem is not that the kids don't get enough math.


Men in Black II. Everybody in America has already seen it. Do I really need to review it?

Then again, have I ever waited until there was an actual need for my reviews before writing them?

I thought it was great fun. It was exactly as good as it needed to be.

The story is thin, but doesn't pretend to be more. The actors are charming, the dialogue is witty when it should be, silly when that's what's needed.

Lara Flynn Boyle gets to bring to the big screen the character she's been playing so well for years on ABC's The Practice. Except for a somewhat excessive manicure, I can't see that there's any difference.

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith do a superb job of keeping the wit dry. They never give us that desperate-to-be-funny vibe that makes watching Jim Carrey so painful. Instead they keep their characters as charming as ... as ... Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones or Han Solo.

Is the plot silly? Of course it is. But it's played for the right kind of laughs, it manages to be exciting in the right places, and every minute, if not every moment, is entertaining.

MIIB begs to be compared to Attack of the Clones. Both of them have lots of computer-animated aliens sharing the screen with live actors. Both of them have save-the-world plots and fairly feeble love stories.

But Attack of the Clones is a wretched waste of time and money -- the filmmakers' and ours.

While MIIB pays off exactly as well as it should. And it doesn't try to give us a bogus religion in the process.

Why the difference? MIIB has a good script and a director who knows how to get the best out of his actors.

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