By Paolo von Schirach
December 27, 2011
WASHINGTON – While shopping in a specialty store in Washington a young saleswoman showed me what seemed like a good deal on Italian olive oil. A 1 liter bottle for 7 dollars. Not bad for what seemed to be extra virgin, cold pressed, olive oil. But then I noticed on a lower shelf a large 3 liter can of the same brand of oil for 20 dollars. And I pointed out that the bigger container was a little cheaper per liter. The young lady appeared a little confused. “What do you mean cheaper?” “Well –I replied — the 1 liter bottles are 7 each. If I buy three, that’s 21 dollars. If I buy the three liter can for 20, I save a dollar. So it is a bit cheaper”. The sales woman seemed uncertain. “I was never good in math”, she told me. “The last math course I took was in college. And I was so glad to be done with that subject”.
College level math
So there you have it. This is what college level math gets you in America these days. A young sales woman cannot figure out that three bottles ( 1 liter per bottle) of 7 dollar oil amount to a total of 21 dollars and that 21 dollars is a bit more than a 20 dollar can containing the same three liters. (I know that in America we do not use the metric system. But the containers clearly indicated the quantities in quarts and in liters).
Many statistics show huge education gaps
True enough, one person is not a national statistic. But we have seen plenty of scary national statistics about math and science proficiency, or lack thereof, I should say.
And we have seen the international comparisons done through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, (OECD), sponsored “Program for International Student Assessment” (PISA) in which US students routinely score towards the bottom in most subjects, and especially so in science and math. These statistics tell us that we have a major national problem.
US cannot be a leading economy with a semi-illiterate work force
It should be self-evident to all that we simply cannot continue to be the leading world economy with such low education levels. Surely there are many kids who go to good private schools and then to the best colleges. Most likely they know more. And then we are blessed with all these Ph.D graduates from India and China who start great businesses in Silicon Valley and beyond. Fair enough.
But at least half of America is severely under educated. And this is a big problem today and it is going to grow into a bigger one tomorrow. Ignorant people, even with degrees, cannot aspire to good, high paying jobs in this arch competitive global economy. We should all think about the far reaching implications of this education crisis.
College level math does not teach that 2o is less than 21
In any event, now I I have first hand evidence of the outcomes of the US higher education system. At least in this one instance, college level math does not provide the skills to appreciate that three times 7 is 21 and that 21 is a higher number than 20. May be that college should look again at its math courses content.
In the end, if this small example is indeed an indicator of the level of general knowledge in America, (and other data suggest it is), then we are in real trouble. (By the way, I bought the three liter can, because I love olive oil and the bigger container was a slightly better deal).