When you eat the labor of your hands, you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. Psalm 128:2
Failing at producing
You may have heard the phrase that America has turned into a “nation of consumers”. If you think that is an incorrect assessment, take a look at this graph:
This year, 2012, will likely be the 37th consecutive year that the United States of America has imported more than it has exported. In other words, we are consuming hundreds of billions of dollars more than we produce. As a whole, Americans are less productive, which means we are also less creative, than we were back in the 1960s.
For Christians, a trend like this should be unsettling, because it goes against the most basic of Christian principles. One of God’s very first commands to humans was to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Created in His image, we are designed to create, too. To be productive. To bear fruit and “eat the labor of your hands”, as Psalm 128:2 teaches. “Bearing fruit” is not just about having children, or raising corn and cattle, building houses, bearing spiritual fruits, etc. Bearing fruit is ultimately about fulfilling the Great Commission by spreading the Gospel to the ends of the Earth (Matthew 28:18-20). And God didn’t make us all clones, and give us all the same exact plan for fulfilling the Great Commission. He designed us to be creative in this task.
Unfortunately in America, we answered the trend towards excessive consumption by developing “consumer math” classes for high school and college students. Such classes usually contain basic arithmetic and very little algebra, and are designed to help students understand common-sense ideas such as not spending more money than you earn. Less obvious topics like interest rate are also covered. However, most topics are a review of what students already learned in elementary and middle-grade math courses. Also called “business math”, Wikipedia describes these courses as “subjects taught to students who are not planning a university education.” In other words, the classes are for people who are not planning to be producers, just consumers.
Training up backward-thinking consumers
Now, don’t get me wrong. I certainly believe non-university bound students can also be productive members of society! However, by taking “consumer math” instead of an advanced math or calculus class in high school, you are essentially falling in line with secular and non-Christian education standards. For example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics claims “For those whose formal education will end with high school, the needs of citizens and consumers for increasing mathematical sophistication dictate a collection of courses based on consumer and career needs”. See, there it is again! Non-university-bound students are just consumers. And citizens. But I didn’t say that, “they” did! The average government school is training students to be consumers and citizens who are told of their supposed not-so-special origin from a monkey-man. Shouldn’t they, shouldn’t we, instead be training students to be forward-thinking producers? Of course! If you are in a government school, you should fight against this kind of demoralizing miseducation. If you homeschool or private school, don’t use the government schools as your guide! Instead make sure your child gets a good dose of Christ-centered science, and it’s language, mathematics.
You are more than a consumer
University bound or not, current Christian or not, I hope you can see the problem with consumer math. Of course, some consumer math is a good idea, but “producer math” should be the priority, especially in high school and college. Because human beings are designed by God to be creative, creativity comes naturally for us. But creativity always requires tools, and in the 21st Century, good mathematics skills are definitely one tool that will help spark creativity, and in turn, productivity. All humans are consumers, but life is about so much more than that. Being a producer as well means that you and/or the company you work for need to 1) Create something to sell and 2) have the ability to sell it AND make a profit. And it is the profit (fruit) that you can use to grow your family, grow your church, and be a wise ruler of God’s creation as you fulfill the Great Commission.
Three of the many math skills that are important for 21st Century producers, two of which you won’t see much of until Algebra 2 or later, include 1) Unit multipliers (conversion factors), 2) Analytical Geometry, and 3) Calculus. And in all three of these, an understanding of fractions is key.
Good skills with unit multipliers are helpful when you are designing a new cancer-fighting nanotechnology, and you need to convert micrograms per liter per hour to ppm per day. Or, maybe you are setting up a spreadsheet to help you determine cost per unit of an invention that you patented, and now want to sell. Analytical geometry is helpful in computer graphics and other applications, where knowledge of not only shape, but exact spatial positioning is important. And calculus is where rates of change are studied, which has applications in more areas than you will ever imagine in a lifetime.
Math for producers
John Saxon (1923-1996) wrote some of the best “producer math” books available. While newer editions are moving away from his tried and true methods, the pre-2009 Saxon textbook editions are the best I’ve seen at helping students learn producer math. Avoid the newer, blue-covered hardback Saxon texts, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and NOT written by John Saxon. In texts written and approved by John, unit multipliers are taught beginning in the elementary grades, and continue through Calculus. Consumer math topics are also included. For example, sales tax, a topic that would be taught in a high school “consumer math” course, is introduced in the elementary-level Saxon Math 5/4. Students continue building their consumer math skills from this point on through Saxon Calculus.
As I get closer to creating my own mathematics curriculum, I hope to take the best of John Saxon’s principles, and build on those. As I develop this curriculum, I am taking note of the fact that John Saxon never wrote a “consumer math” textbook. Indeed he frowned upon the very idea of placing students in these classes. Regarding consumer, or “basic” math, John Saxon said “We cannot take kids and relegate them to the trash heap in this technological society. We label them as failures when we put them in basic math”(from John Saxon’s Story, by Niki Hayes, p. 276). And Saxon wasn’t the only successful teacher opposed to these courses. The book Standing and Delivering by Henry Gradillas highlights the story of how he and teacher Jaime Escalante eliminated “dumb dumb” math classes from Garfield High School in Los Angeles, and by doing so, turned around math education, with many students passing the AP Calculus exams.
So is “producer math” harder than “consumer math”? Well, is buying a blueberry bush, planting it, watering it, nurturing it, harvesting the fruit and then taking it to market to sell, harder than consuming a bowl of blueberries? Yes! But what does Scripture say about doing hard things? Does it say to run from them? Certainly not! It says to count our trials as joy (James 1:2-3). Parents and teachers who seek to help students be producers will get more heartache, more complaints, and more trials to deal with. But 10 years later, those parents will probably get more “thank you’s” from their children than from the ones who failed to challenge.
Christians have been called to handle the hard stuff with grace and thanksgiving. Parents, you know your child best. Are they capable of doing more producer math? The majority of them are, so push them with much love, patience, and perseverance. And if they fail the first time, give them a second chance the next year. And the next. But if you are certain your child is not capable of things like calculus, then do what it takes to teach them as much producer math as you can. Being a producer is not just the American way, it’s the Christian way, and us parents need to make sure we are training our children up to be more than consumers. Much more!