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So Long, Long Division?...Some Thought!

Let us consider two machines, each capable of dividing 1,128 by 36. The first is a pocket calculator. You punch in the numbers, and in a tenth of a second or so the answer appears in a digital display, with an accuracy of, for all ordinary purposes, 100 percent.

The second is a seventh grader. You give him or her a pencil and a sheet of paper, write out the problem, and in 15 seconds, more or less, there is a somewhat better-than-even chance of getting back the correct answer.

As between them, the choice is obvious. The calculator wins hands down, leaving only the question of why the junior high schools of America are full of kids toiling over long division, an army of adolescents in an endless trudge, carrying digits from column to column.

Well, the typical answer goes, seventh graders don't practice long division in order to make calculators obsolete. They do it because it is good for them. They learn the importance of keeping their place columns straight. It's an exercise for the mind--in the way that hoeing is exercise for the back.

Increasingly, though, the question is being asked--and not, as one might expect, just by seventh graders themselves--why this must be so. What exactly is the value of long division, or any of the rudimentary arithmetic skills, in the age of the computer and the calculator?

Source: Jerry Adler's "Creating Problems," Newsweek Special Issue, Fall 1990