Apparently, Numbers Strain the American Public’s Brain

I can see Mrs. Knight now, her skirt held out in front of her to make a basket for pebbles she had gathered, lots and lots of smooth, round pebbles. Mrs. Knight was Teacher Knight’s wife, a stout lady with a soft drawl, who seldom got excited.

Teacher Knight, a retired elementary school principal, was my tutor when I was 10 and 11 years old. I was an unruly child and Teacher Knight’s job was to whip me into shape so I could win a scholarship at a secondary school. (With help from his supple jacks, “Lazy Cure” and “Slack Cure,” he did such a good job I won two scholarships.)

Mrs. Knight was assigned to school my younger siblings, Harry and Betty (now Bill and Elizabeth), and my cousin Tony (who – sadly – died recently in Belize).  We lived near Stanmore at the time and if you’ve never heard of Stanmore I am not surprised. Few people – even in Jamaica – have. It was quite remote – far from any source of a formal education.

While Teacher Knight relied on his supple jacks to drive home mathematical principles, Mrs. Knight relied on her pebbles. Busybody that I was, I would often watch Mrs. Knight with her pebbles when I was supposed to be dividing fractions in my head (risking a visit from “Slack Curer”).

She would spread her pebbles across the top of a small table, and methodically, patiently, show the younger children how math worked. If you take one pebble and set it aside from the rest, that’s  one. Add a second pebble and what do you get? And so on. Like a makeshift abacus, the pebbles could be used not only to add, but also to subtract, divide and multiply.

I don’t know how well the system worked for Harry, Tony and Betty, but it was extremely enlightening for me. To this day, I see those pebbles in my mind when I try to calculate anything.

I remembered the pebbles today when I read about the latest outrage being inflicted on the American people by the nation’s financial institutions. The article was published in Rolling Stone and reprinted by the Daily Kos with this explanation:

With 25 posts at Daily Kos over the past 24 hours that reference Chris Christie, and not a single mention regarding the online publication of Matt Taibbi’s latest stunning article, appearing in the February 27th edition of Rolling Stone, I thought I’d bring it to the community’s attention.

The pillaging of America’s wealth is not new. Everyone must know by now that the institutions entrusted with the operation of the nation’s financial system are skimming larger and larger chunks off the top. With their ill-gotten gains, the big banks have bought protection from the politicians in Washington while they have become – once again – much too big to fail (or jail).

The latest scam involves buying up essential commodities and manipulating their availability while betting that their prices will rise or fall on the stock market. Predicting the price movement of a commodity is obviously a sure bet when you control the supply. But, thanks to the banks’ pals in Congress, it’s legal.

Taibbi has made a career of exposing the big banks’ depredations, but his bombshells have landed with a thud. Like that famous tree in the forest, nobody hears them fall.

It seems to me that the American public doesn’t want to deal with this persistent abuse because it involves numbers. And I don’t think most Americans – most people – like numbers. They strain the brain.

I wonder whether things would have been different if there had been more math teachers like Mrs. Knight, with skirts full of smooth, round pebbles.

Click to read about the banks’ latest scam.