John Krull: Florida and the passion for fuzzy math



It’s time to stop pretending that America’s education debates are about, well, education.

Education is supposed to be about enlightenment. It is a process of expanding one’s mind and deepening one’s understanding of the almost infinite complexities of this world and existence itself.

In the end, it is an almost futile task.

That is why a true education becomes a series of lessons in humility. The more one learns, the more one comes to understand the vast amount one does not and cannot know.

Even the answers one finds only lead to more questions.

That is what makes so many of our arguments in this country about education so frustrating. So many of the loudest voices in the discussion want to reduce what should be and is a highly individual and empowering experience to a merely transactional process.

They want students — and, more important, the students’ parents — to think they have all the answers before they even know how to ask the questions.

The latest debacle down in Florida is proof of that.

For those of you who haven’t been following the train wreck in the Sunshine State — lucky you — the politicized Florida Department of Education just removed 41% of the math textbooks from the state’s curriculum for next year.

Florida’s conservative flacks said the books were rejected because they included critical race theory and other forms of dogma the rightwing intellectual hall monitors found objectionable.

Again, these were math textbooks.

Most were published by well-respected, mainstream houses and had been vetted by experts in their field before the texts even were sent to the printing press. That’s the way the process for publishing and adopting school textbooks works.

That is, until politicians decide there are votes to be mined by distracting Florida residents from the fact their COVID rates were roughly three times the size of California’s and instead focusing their attention on a complex legal and intellectual concept that isn’t even taught in primary and secondary schools.

But then, one would have to understand basic principles of math to grasp that reality, and the politicians in Florida are doing everything they can to make sure math instruction there is enfeebled.

The conservative education despots didn’t offer any evidence of the offensive doctrines they found in the rejected texts.

To do so would have required the intellectual honesty essential to genuine education.

This, too, is something these zealots seem not to care about at all.

That’s not surprising.

Their technique is an old one, as any student of history could tell you. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, they screamed that there were Communists under every bed.

There weren’t, but demagogues always have understood that frightened people rarely ask for evidence or proof. Those frightened people in fact become unwitting collaborators in the process of being conned. They offer themselves up to be skinned.

Often, they are proud of the fact that they so eagerly have allowed themselves to be fleeced.

Periodically I receive notes from people who say they are horrified that someone such as me would “indoctrinate” young people.

I always find that a curious assumption on their parts. Are they saying that, if they were in a position of responsibility, such as mine, they would betray and abuse that responsibility by attempting to foist their own personal beliefs onto students? Are they projecting their own impulses and motivations onto me and every other educator?

But, once again, I’m asking questions. The habit of inquiry is something a true education embeds in a mind. Once acquired, the tendency to challenge every bit of information that comes one’s way becomes a reflex.

The reality is that education doesn’t teach people what to think or how to vote. If it did, the late William F. Buckley Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — who were the same age, came from similar backgrounds and had similar educational opportunities — would have marched through life in intellectual lockstep.

Instead, they disagreed on just about everything.

Education teaches a person to think.

It doesn’t teach one what to think. That’s up to the individual.

Examples demonstrating this are numerous.

You could tally them up.

Unless, of course, you learn your math in Florida.