In most schools, children are taught fundamental arithmetic in elementary school. Then, they are forced to eat an “algebra-geometry-algebra sandwich” between middle school and high school, including algebra, geometry, and algebra. The first year of algebra (sometimes known as Algebra I) reinforces fundamental arithmetic while also introducing fractions. Introducing variables and functions signals the beginning of the familiar to the strange transition. In word problems and linear equations, “x the unknown” makes its first appearance, which for many is a symptom of bewilderment rather than the discovery of an epistemological treasure buried beneath the surface of the earth.
When the situation becomes dire, the math class travels back in time to the days of ancient Greece for instruction in rigorous geometric arguments (“Geometry”) that Euclid would have no issue substituting for if he were still alive. There is then an entire school year devoted to the study of algebra (“Algebra II: The Sequel!”), which, given the previous year’s partial break from x’s and y’s and numbers, first necessitates an extensive review and then a return to new functions (exponentials, logarithms, and polynomials) that either amuse or irritate you, depending on your taste and preferences as well as your teacher.
For some, the math comes to a halt here, and others can take advantage of an honors track, which expedites the process. Students are increasingly getting into pre-calculus or calculus, which is commonly reintroduced in the first year of college and is the final part of formal mathematics a person will ever experience. Please accept my apologies for any unpleasant flashbacks – or indigestion – that may have occurred.
A long time has passed since the sandwich – and, in fact, since the entire mathematical dinner – was consumed. If Levitt had the impression that his children had been airlifted into his childhood arithmetic classrooms, his parents likely felt the same way. A famous 1892 “Committee of Ten” that met at the behest of the National Education Association to standardize public education is credited with establishing the foundations of the curriculum. It was their first act, as any good committee should, that they established additional committees, this time nine in total, each charged with the consideration of a “principal subject which enters into the programs of secondary schools in the United States and the requirements for college admission.” Each of these subcommittees then assessed “the suitable limitations of its topic, the best methods of instruction, the most desired allotment of time for the subject, and the best means of measuring the pupils’ attainments in the subject,” according to the committee’s description. One of these subjects was mathematics. The same may be said about Latin and Greek.