Minute With Mike

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 4/15/97.

February 7, 1997
If you hated algebra, cheated in geometry, struggled through trigonometry, or avoided calculus, then you will probably sympathize with students here. If you had trouble relating to math in Minnesota, you might have had a tougher time here.

Sure, we use math. Think of how many times you add, subtract, multiply, or divide each day. Imagine how you would be treated if you couldn't count. But when's the last time you needed to find the area of a trapezoid? Has your boss ever asked you to construct a 30- degree angle using just a compass and ruler?

Couldn't the everyday useful parts of math be condensed? We'd be done by sixth grade.

According to the education department, only 15 percent of high school students in Papua New Guinea will enter paid employment. Only three out of 20 will have jobs as store clerks, civil servants, teachers, mechanics, etc. The rest will be self-employed, meaning many will be back in their village making gardens, hunting, and living off the land.

If math isn't very relevant, I wouldn't know it from the response in my classes. They're more eager than I can ever remember being, and I liked math classes myself. I hope part of it is my teaching style, my being different. The largest part is the influence their school performance has on their lives.

I don't know the exact percentages, but maybe 70 percent of kids here start school. By grade six, maybe half either drop out or are pushed out. There's a national exam at the end of grade six that is used as a criteria for admission to high school. Another national exam after grade 10 is used to determine which select students go on to grades 11 and 12.

Last November, we had to condense our two grade eight classes into one grade nine class for this year. Through attrition, each class had been reduced from 40 students originally to 25 by the end of last year. That meant we only had to eliminate 10 students to get 40 ninth graders for this year.

They're trying to expand the whole system nationally, but it's underfunded and corrupt. At Lumi, for instance, we are adding a grade per year. Originally, we had two grade seven classes, two grade eight, one grade nine, and one grade 10. Last year, we took in three grade seven classes. This year we have three grade seven classes, three grade eight, one grade nine and one grade 10. We'll keep adding until we have 3-3-2-2.

Universal education is great in theory, but I have my doubts about its real effects. These students are fighting for economic gains. The further they climb, the better their grades are, the better their financial prospects are. Of course, the system isn't fair. It favors wealthy families. Marginal students from cash poor families are surely more inclined to drop out. And since most education takes place at home, kids who grow up in towns, at schools, and on government stations, have an advantage in speaking English. All the classes are in English, so this is a big edge.

This isn't what I idealistically think education should be about-the love of knowledge and learning. Instead it's divisive. It's academic king-of-the-hill, where the hill is money. Some kids are battling for top marks. A few are coasting, in it for the slip of paper at the end.

The true nature of the system here may be more obvious, but our own is similar, if subtle. I skipped reading assignments and science experiments and copied work, and then tried to salvage a good grade.

I didn't come halfway around the world to live in a place where I have to pick ants out of my peanut butter just to be a cog in a machine. I think math, if not relevant, is beneficial to all. Challenging yourself and leaning to use your brain in new ways always is.

The first two weeks of school are done. (No snow days so far!) This year I have become an English teacher by default. I'm just a warm body in front of the class, reciting grammar rules I don't like or understand myself.

I hate it. I'm much more comfortable in the math department, and I've got the sloppy blackboard writing to prove it. My two math classes each day are my refuge. That's telling. The ability to speak English is an important skill in PNG, but I'd rather talk about Pythagoras and teach deduction and all that other "irrelevant" stuff.

(Michael Jacobson was a reporter for the Paynesville Press before joining the Peace Corps.)

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