Tom Lehrer demonstrates that what many call traditional today was once radical

(h/t to my mother who not only turned me on to Tom Lehrer but whose own inability to follow the New Math I was being taught often resulted in exasperated rants but helped me learn as I tried to explain it to her. plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)

Parents complaining about  the math being taught to their children seems to be a constant refrain probably  going back to Hammurabi.

It continues today. Anyone with a sense of humor, a sense of history and who grew up in the 60s should get a smile on their face and a wry shake of the head.

For those following the contretemps of Erick Erickson’s rant about current math approaches 9my bold)

The traditional method of subtracting, borrowing and carrying numbers, is derisively called the “Granny Method.” The new method makes no freaking sense to either my third grader or my wife.


This is maddening and angering and frustrating. This is why so many parents are so upset. They cannot help their children. The math makes no sense and seems to offer no practical purpose other than it is new. The teachers privately concede the uselessness of it.

As we can see from the video above – a Tom Lehrer song from the early 60s  bemoaning the very approach of borrowing in subtractions that Erick claims is traditional – what was radical 50 years ago is now just the way it is supposed to be.

It is the Granny method because it was actually first taught to people who are now grandparents. Then it was the radical New Math.

His second paragraph could probably be reused by parents in every generation ever. I know that it could have come right out of the mouth of any parent when I was a child. To this day my mother and I laugh about number lines and negative numbers.. 

But all the problem is demonstrating is simply another strategy for subtracting, one that we actually all pretty much use in our heads to figure out things like change back, etc. – I gave him $5 for a $3.62 coffee. $3.62 to $4 is $0.38 and 4 to 5 is $1 so i should get back $1.38. Nobody uses the granny method on their head to figure that out.

It is humorous that what he learned as a child is now the traditional way, not the radical New Math it was depicted at the time.

What Erick sees as traditional was actually once so radical that satirical songs could be written about it. People laughed at what he now thinks is traditional. I bet his parents ranted about the very thing he now sees as traditional.

And I bet that Erik’s daughter will be bemoaning the way her children are being taught math rather than the traditional way of counting up subtraction.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.