A good percentage of broadcast and Internet news this year has been devoted to America’s looming debt crisis — specifically the battle over whether to raise the country’s debt limit. And rightly so. The magnitude of our nation’s debt boggles the mind. It’s simply impossible for the average person to imagine the size of a number that ends with 12 zeroes (a trillion), let alone a number over 14 times larger.
Last year, there was an article in USA Today about how one-third of students entering college can’t perform college-level mathematics and require one or more remedial math courses before they can even begin working toward their degree. What does this say about the quality of mathematics instruction that high school students receive in America today? And, as part of the bigger picture, what about all of the high school students who don’t opt for college? That surely pushes the percentage of mathematically illiterate high school graduates even higher.
I’m in my early 50s. I remember my second grade teacher, Mrs. Moreland, pounding the multiplication tables into my head (God bless you, Mrs. Moreland). By the time I reached high school, electronic calculators were just beginning to see widespread use. They were quite expensive at the time, and we weren’t permitted to use them in math classes. We had to know how to perform basic arithmetic. And the McDonald’s where I worked when I was in high school didn’t have electronic cash registers, so I had to learn how to count change back to customers.
Today people say, “I was never any good at math,” almost as if they are proud of the fact. But the fact is that many people can’t perform basic math without the aid of a calculator. And who hasn’t had a cashier who entered the wrong cash tendered amount and was totally lost trying to figure out how much change to give back?
I once worked with a lady who taught remedial math at a local college. The stories that she used to tell us about her students had to be heard first-hand to be believed. She’s had students who didn’t know their multiplication tables, students who were unable to add, subtract, multiply or divide fractions, and even students who were unable to add, subtract, multiply and divide WHOLE numbers. Is it any wonder that America now finds itself woefully behind countries such as China and Japan when it comes to math education?
Which leads me back to the topic of America’s debt crisis. As we’ve heard, the United States finds itself well over $14 trillion in debt. Politicians continue to debate whether to raise the debt limit to allow us to borrow even more money that we don’t have. This debate has gone back and forth for months as Congress continues to pass stop-gap bills to allow the federal government to continue to function. Conservatives want to place strict limits on spending before passing any kind of bill that would raise the debt limit. Liberals in general, and President Obama in particular, continue to demagogue the issue by implying that Grandma is no longer going to be able to receive her free prescription medication and that children with severe handicaps are going to be kicked out into the streets to fend for themselves.
The problem with the entire discussion — and the reason that so many Americans are apathetic — is the fact that probably half of the electorate can’t begin to comprehend the enormity of the debt. To these people, there is little difference between $14 trillion and $14 million. The reality is that the federal debt is a MILLION times $14 million. If we were to pay it back at $14 million per day (assuming that we stop borrowing right now), it would take a million days — or approximately 2,740 years — to repay it. But try explaining this to someone who can’t multiply seven by five without using a calculator.
America finds itself facing an ever-growing number of serious issues, not the least of which is our insurmountable debt. But America also faces a serious “math crisis.”
And “I was never any good at math” just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
James Sharp is a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management sales guy. He believes in a strong military, limited government and unlimited opportunity for all U.S. citizens.