“28 + 7? Let’s see, 29, 30, 31…”

The problem wasn’t simple for high schoolers, I guess. The student, a sophomore at Garza High School in Austin, had to factor a quadratic. As her tutor, I was told to give her hints to move her along, but I couldn’t give her the answer directly. So I taught her a trick I had learned a while ago to factor quadratics, something like this. It involves splitting the first and third term into factors that cross-multiply to become the second term, and at least for me it simplified solving quadratics greatly. I was happy when she understood what I meant, but when I asked her to do the cross multiplication, she balked and started counting with her fingers.

She understood the quadratic formula, a fairly complicated algorithm, perfectly, but couldn’t add 28 to 7 without using her fingers.

I was stunned. My parents, an MBA and a Ph.D. in finance, spent hours drilling everything from basic arithmetic to advanced algebra into my head in elementary and middle school. In fact, I learned the trick above while walking at night around the neighborhood with my mother in 5th grade. I had years of Kumon, the benefits of an incredibly accelerated math curriculum, and a set of (mostly) fantastic teachers to guide me along, so it came as no surprise when I decided to become a math major. So to hear a high-schooler need to count on her fingers to add 28 and 7 caught me off-guard, not just because it illustrated some fundamentally deep problems with the American system of mathematical education, but because it illustrated to me just how elitist I had been about my intellectual environment.