Friday, March 14, 2008

False dichotomies in math and social skills


The Washington Post's report on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel repeats the tired dichotomy of concepts-oriented Reformists vs. memorization-oriented Traditionalists. It ignores that:

1. No memorization means no knowledge means no foundation for concepts.

2. Memorizing arithmetic tables frees up short term memory for higher level math concepts.

3. Traditionalists teach concepts.  Some of the deepest conceptual instruction appears in long out-of-print math texts (one of which I've used with my son) that are nothing if not traditional.

Social skills

Then there's David Brooks' social skills dichotomy in today's NY Times Op-Ed.  Speaking of Eliot Spitzer and like-minded alpha male strivers, he pits those people (presumably most of us, including Brooks) capable of genuine intimacy towards friends and lovers against their "emotionally avoidant" counterparts: those governed by ambition, false intimacy, schmoozing, deference to bosses, narcissism, and... Asperger's Syndrome!  Brooks ignores that:

1. Social climbing requires social skills that Aspies fundamentally lack.

2. Aspies are among the least socially manipulative and narcissistic of all of us.

3. A number of factors can block intimacy:  some cognitive (e.g., difficulties with perspective-taking or Theory of Mind); others emotional (e.g., selfishness, social insecurity, self-absorption, emotional neediness, and narcissism).  Some are more controllable, and thus more reprehensible, than others. 

The moral 

The right-brain view isn't always the right view:

1. Not all concepts depend on right-brained re-conceptions of math.

2. Not all social sins stem from left-brained deficits.


Allison said...

But the worst part of the article is that the NMAP report itself calls such a dichotomy a false dichotomy. But you'd have to actually read the report, and quote the writers in context rather than taking tidbits of sentences they've spoken.

lefty said...

Thanks for pointing this out! It fits with what I've heard about education reporting: that it's one of the lowest slots on the newspaper totem pole.