August 8, 2000 - The Cincinnati Post: Malawi RPCV Dale Mcfeatters once had to use fractions in the Peace Corps

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Malawi: Peace Corps Malawi : The Peace Corps in Malawi: August 8, 2000 - The Cincinnati Post: Malawi RPCV Dale Mcfeatters once had to use fractions in the Peace Corps

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Malawi RPCV Dale Mcfeatters once had to use fractions in the Peace Corps

Malawi RPCV Dale Mcfeatters once had to use fractions in the Peace Corps

A world without fractions

Column by Dale McFeatters

The ability to do fractions is about to join the list of such obsolete life skills as stick shifts, analog clocks and neckties.

The stock exchanges are about to shift from fractions to decimals, undoubtedly under pressure from the same sinister cabal that is determined to force the metric system on America.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal began carrying certain market transactions in decimals, and if the Journal, a voluminous daily bible of fractions, succumbs, there's no hope for the rest of us. And there's no hope of convincing a whole generation of students - who already are beginning to suspect that tens of millions of Americans go happily through their entire adult lives without recourse to algebra or pre-calculus - of the importance of fractions.

In a few years, the nation's youth, unaware of the mathematical origins of ''lowest common denominator,'' will believe the term applies exclusively to popular culture.

My generation, and the generations preceding us, had to learn fractions; they should have to learn fractions, too. Thanks to the pocket calculator - and high schools now require students to have one - today's graduates escaped the heavy lifting of learning the multiplication tables and the brow-furrowing drills of ''mental arithmetic.''

There are kids today who think analog clocks are decorative wall hangings. They have no idea you can tell time from the big hand and little hand. Ask them what time it is and they will look at their digital watch and say, ''1:47.'' If you say ''a quarter of'' - a fraction, by the way - they have no idea what you're talking about. And some digital watches have little calculators on the band.

Legend has it that there was an admiral, a real sea dog, who would discreetly glance down at a little card before leading his fleet into battle. When he retired, he left the card behind and his officers scrambled to see what inspirational wisdom was there. The card said, ''Port is left. Starboard is right.''

Fractions are like that. To multiply fractions, you simply multiply, but to divide, you turn one of the fractions upside down and then multiply. Each year after the seventh grade, this becomes harder and harder to remember.

The demise of the fraction also takes some of the romance out of Wall Street. The custom of doing business in fractions of one-eighth goes back to the 1600s, when there really was a wall in Manhattan to keep marauders and livestock out and traders used a Spanish coin that could be whacked into pieces to make change - the legendary ''pieces of eight.'' In subsequent years, it seemed metaphysically appropriate that the financial market did business in units of currency that didn't actually exist - eighths, 16ths, 32nds, 64ths and, in some arcane transactions, 256ths.

Now we will be left with mundane decimals.

This is not the first time that I, personally, have been victimized by decimals. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, I had to do a large payroll in pounds, shillings and pence, and it had to be paid out in cash to the penny in a weekly public ritual that looked like something out of ''Treasure Island.'' There was an astonishing variety of coins - pennies, thre'pennies, sixpences, shillings, florins and half crowns as well as 5- and 10-shilling and one-pound notes. Just when I had achieved the easy mastery of a change-maker in a video arcade, the British government converted to the decimal system.

Does anybody care that there were 12 pence to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound and that a half crown was two shillings and six pence? No. And soon nobody is going to care that you know that 1/8 plus 1/7 equals 15/56.

Just as automatic transmissions made it no longer necessary to learn the stick shift, and casual Fridays to tie a necktie, and Velcro to tie shoelaces and programs with names like ''spelchek'' to spell, the ability to do fractions will join the list of obsolete skills, as quaint as butter churns and buggy whips.

The day is not far off when you won't need to know anything at all since, as we're being told by this same sinister cabal, ''you can always look it up on the Internet.''

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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Story Source: The Cincinnati Post

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Malawi; Humor



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