People who think that things like national commission reports and presidential pronouncements on the condition of education have no immediate effects on teachers and children are either too young to remember or have forgotten what happened when the Conant Report was issued. There were five of us matching nickels in shop class in a small Nebraska high school that afternoon in 1963, when a muffled voice announced over the intercom that "James Conant says your teachers have been educated improperly." Although the voice didn't come right out and say so, the implication was clear: teachers are a bunch of closet dolts. The effect was instantaneous. Jimmie Lee Stauffer hurriedly raked in 45 cents, and we stepped up the action with a renewed sense of the futility of life in the 1960s.
There was, of course, a sneaking suspicion that Conant was probably on to something. Our shop teacher, for example, had sawed off the tip of his index finger in a summer school class at a nearby teachers' college. Admittedly, accidents happen, but in his case it appeared to be part of a pattern of sloppy thinking that clearly wasn't improved by taking additional college courses. Moreover, we had learned only two weeks earlier, from the mechanic at Ike's Standard Station, that our advanced algebra teacher poured 30-weight oil into the transmission of his 1953 Chevrolet thinking it was the same thing as transmission fluid. If teachers weren't dumb, they were at least a bit out of touch with reality.
When the principal caught us that afternoon and launched into a tirade on the evils of moral and academic flabbiness we were stunned when Old Nine Fingers came to the rescue. The whole situation, he explained, was part of an integrated unit on industrial arts and mathematics. The point of the nickel flipping was to demonstrate that if an experiment can result in any one of n different, equally likely outcomes, and if exactly m of these outcomes correspond to event A, then the probability of event A is: P(A) e m/n. He and the advanced algebra teacher had planned the activity for weeks.
Looking back on that afternoon, I realize now that the act of announcing Conant's conclusion on the intercom was probably politically motivated. The teachers were trying to establish a salary schedule, much to the dismay of the board and its agent, the superintendent. Gary Pope, a fellow nickel flipper and now a member of the local school board in that same Nebraska town, told me last summer that it was, in fact, the superintendent's muffled voice we heard over the intercom that afternoon. How Gary figured this out I didn't ask; it was enough to know that things weren't always as they appeared even in the good old days.
Old Nine Fingers quit teaching one year to the day after that fateful afternoon and has been selling insurance and a little seed corn on the side ever since. We had no idea he knew anything about probability, let alone possessed the nobility of spirit to help us out of a tight spot, but he did. We never made the mistake of selling him short again. Despite what Conant and the local policy makers said, he was more like the rest of us than anyone ever thought.