New Math, by Tom Lehrer

To add a little levity to the recent posts about the Common Core, here’s the song “New Math” by Tom Lehrer that poked fun at the New Math curriculum of the 1960s.

For some context, here’s a succinct summary of the new math fad by Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics and served on a commission for choosing math textbooks for California in 1964:

I understood what they were trying to do. Many [Americans] thought we were behind the Russians after Sputnik, and some mathematicians were asked to give advice on how to teach math by using some of the rather interesting modern concepts of mathematics. The purpose was to enhance mathematics for the children who found it dull.

I’ll give you an example: They would talk about different bases of numbers — five, six, and so on — to show the possibilities. That would be interesting for a kid who could understand base ten — something to entertain his mind. But what they turned it into, in these books, was that every child had to learn another base! And then the usual horror would come: “Translate these numbers, which are written in base seven, to base five.” Translating from one base to another is an utterly useless thing. If you can do it, maybe it’s entertaining; if you can’t do it, forget it. There’s no point to it.

From the chapter “Judging Books by their Covers” in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

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