THE country's in a ``dismal'' state when it comes to math, according to still another report from those educational services that seem to constitute the chief industry of New Jersey. A shocking number of 17-year-olds couldn't compute the area of a rectangle when given the lengths of the sides.
``Exactly how shocking a number?'' you ask, with your mathematician's hunger for statistics.
One out of 3, says a summary of the report, though when the text gets right down to it, one-third turns out to be 26 percent - a figure considerably closer to one-fourth.
A TV interviewer, voicing his indignation to one of the testers, demanded: ``Why can't we get that 73 percent to pull that other 26 percent along with them?'' Let's see, 73 plus 26 - this leaves an unaccountable 1 percent floating in space, the people who are never there when you need them.
A newspaper article described the survey as ``The Mathematics Report Card: Are We Measuring Up'' - leaving off the indispensable question mark, thus raising the further question: ``Are We Measuring Up in Verbal Skills Either?''
As everybody knows by now - to the point of utter weariness - there are two schools of thought about schools:
1.The back-to-basics purists argue that education fatefully departed from the fundamentals'' in the '60s in the name of ``relevance.'' It's been all downhill ever since for the SAT scores, and everything else, and the slump will continue until we give up relevance and return to the original three R's - assigning a curriculum of a couple of hundred Great Books while we're at it.
2.The second school of thought, by contrast, believes that the difficulty is not too much ``relevance'' but too little. What's school got to do with real life, man? The kids are just plain bored. Back-to-basics education is no fun - and education should be ``ecstasy,'' as the title of one book insists. Golly, isn't everything else in life?
The same week the ``dismal'' report on math came out, lending support to the back-to-basics school, some merry members of the relevance-and-ecstasy school met in New Orleans - where else? - under the aegis of the Popular Culture Association. More than 1,700 papers were delivered by the academics attending on such topics as ``An Historical Analysis of Perfume Ads,'' ``Professional Wrestling and Greek Drama,'' and ``The American Garage Sale and Its Cultural Implications.''
The full ``cultural implications'' of the conference may have been realized when one professor declared that the Grateful Dead provides a ``learning experience'' beyond anything the stained-glass windows at Chartres can offer.
Maybe. Still, you can bet the designers of the Chartres windows knew how to compute the geometrical areas they were filling.
But who needs another reprise of the debate between School No. 1 and School No. 2 - the Blackboard Taskmasters and the Have-a-Nice-Recess Folks?
The debates within education merely reflect confusions outside the classroom. Everybody can agree that education should be a preparation for life, but nobody can agree what life is. So one's life, in fact, becomes a veritable university of contradictions. One takes lessons in karate - and courses in how to be sensitive. One buys videotapes on how to be competitive and how to avoid stress. One spends alternate evenings attending seminars on how to make money and classes in yoga. One learns how to live alone - by enrolling in group therapy, naturally.
The one vital sign is the abiding faith in education. All factions are convinced that some Socrates of a teacher in some idyll of a classroom could teach anything and everything - Sanskrit, sex, driver education, the whole meaning of life according to Western civilization, and, of course, how to figure the area of a rectangle.
And after the Perfect Course under the Perfect Teacher in the Perfect School, we'd all live happily ever after - or at least until September, when summer vacation comes to an end.
A Wednesday and Friday column