Greenspan Favors Long Division

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan has said repeatedly that innovation, fueled by cutting-edge science and technology, is the key to a robust U.S. economy. But yesterday the maker of the nation's monetary policy gave a surprising endorsement of some very old-fashioned educational tools: pencils and paper.

"I'm glad I was brought up in a generation without calculators," Greenspan told the House Education and Workforce Committee at a hearing on one of three bills introduced by Representative Vernon Ehlers, H.R. 4272 (Science, 4 August, p. 713) to improve elementary and secondary school math and science. Doing long division with paper and pencil, he explained as an example, has "enduring value" and is crucial to the "early sharpening of intellectual rigor."

Members of the education panel listened intently as Greenspan sketched out his theory of cognitive development, which seemed to hold little role for technology. It starts, he says, with a "framework" from a teacher or parent that the child continually modifies after testing it in the real world. Spending too much time too soon in front of a computer, he says, "prevents that from happening." And mastering such basic concepts as long division builds students' confidence to tackle higher-level math and science.

Educators take issue with part of Greenspan's message. Rote pencil-and-paper calculations don't guarantee success, says Lee V. Stiff, a math education professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "Calculators, when used appropriately, can facilitate a student's understanding of concepts," he says.

The Fed chairman also made a plea for the value of a liberal arts education. "Many of our most innovative and successful dot.com entrepreneurs are exceptionally, but narrowly, technically focused and educated," Greenspan asserted. Without an appreciation for history, literature, languages, and the arts, he fretted, these new captains of industry may not be able to participate fully in the country's "complex democratic institutions."

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