Math Wrath Explodes Amid "Fuzzy" Furor

The New York Post
June 6, 2001

By Rod Dreher

The words on the Web site were written in red, and the message was chilling: Will there be a bloodbath at N.Y.U.?

Yesterday, Robert Berkman, the creator of the Web site, sent the link to several panelists who intend to speak at a New York University forum tomorrow night, critical of so-called "fuzzy math" instruction in city schools.

"Please visit [the site] to get an idea of how your feeble arguments will be answered on Wednesday evening," he wrote.

Below the startling headline, Berkman listed several perfectly bland arguments against particular complaints about fuzzy math.

But the incongruous "bloodbath" headline stopped the site's intended readers cold. If a student had posted something like that on the Internet about a school, he might well be in handcuffs by now.

Berkman is not a schoolkid. Actually, he teaches them.

The 41-year-old is the lower-school mathematics coordinator at Friends Seminary, the private Quaker school downtown, which uses the kind of "constructivist" math-instruction programs at issue.

Elizabeth Carson, the grass-roots math activist, says she doesn't think Berkman literally intended violence against her side.

But she was still taken aback by the harsh words on the site, especially after having had a heated back-and-forth discussion with Berkman about the upcoming forum.

"I honestly think he's just nuts, that he doesn't understand the implications of using this kind of language," Carson said. "He's one of these very evangelical supporters of this math reform."

When contacted about the site, Berkman admitted it was his, and offered a "full apology" to anyone who was offended.

"I feel bad about it," he said. "When I wrote that, it was very angry. I shouldn't have said that. I retract it."

When told that one parent considered it a threat, and called police, Berkman said, "He's crazy. He shouldn't have done that. He's being too sensitive."

Nevertheless, Berkman took the site down yesterday after speaking both to The Post and the police. A spokesman for Friends Seminary said Berkman's Web site was his own and was "in no way" affiliated with the school.

If you think it's odd that multiplying and dividing would arouse such passions, you haven't been following the constructivist-math debate.

"Some of the attitudes I see among [constructivist-math supporters] I haven't seen since the '60s, with Mao's Red Guards," said NYU math Professor Fred Greenleaf, a critic of the trendy teaching style.

"We're talking serious ideology here," he said. "They believe they have the truth, and nobody else has the truth."

Some parents complain that kids taught with this technique aren't learning basic mathematical operations. Their concerns have been backed by university mathematicians, including Nobel laureates.

Educrats and constructivism enthusiasts, both here and across the country, often give no quarter to critics.

In fact, tomorrow's informational forum - at 7 p.m. in the NYU Law School's Tishman Auditorium - was organized because School District 2 officials refused to meet with parents and others who had complaints.

"This is not a debate, this is an open forum for parents," Greenleaf said. "They have not been allowed an opportunity by the district to ask questions of mathematicians."

Nevertheless, Berkman predicts the event will be "very heated."

"I don't think it's going to be very nice," he said. "I think there's going to be a lot said on the panel they're going to regret later."

In any case, math activist Carson is pleased that the inflammatory Web site has been taken down, but "it worries me that he's teaching small children with that kind of anger

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