I had an amusing, albeit slightly disturbing experience today that may say a lot about the state of critical thinking in our society.
I was in Border’s business section, drawn by their store-closing sale which advertised 25% off every book in the store. There was a young couple in the same aisle, and she was showing him a book that she was interested in. She said, “It’s $45; I wish I knew what 25% off that was.”
What struck me was the finality of her statement, which sounded to me like she didn’t have a clue about how to begin figuring it out, and could not contemplate even trying. Her companion was a little more enterprising, though. He said, “I can figure it out,” and extracted his phone from his pocket.
Now, if there are things I freely concede my kids can do better than I can, they usually have to do with phones. They can do everything with them, while I’m still pretty old school. Having not seen my first electronic calculator until my senior year in high school, I’ve always had a good head for figures, so I knew the answer about a second or two after she had finished her sentence, and I wanted to see how long it would take him to get the answer.
It took him a few seconds to push the right buttons to get to the calculator application. Then he said, “Let’s see, 25 divided by 45 is…Hmm, that’s not right. 45 divided by 25; no, I don’t think that’s it either.”
As he tried other combinations, I admit I had a dilemma. I wanted to help them out, but I knew that they might not appreciate it and besides I knew what I really wanted to do was to show off, not really to help them. So I kept quiet, and pretended to study the rack of titles in front of me.
But then the fellow looked up and said, “Excuse me sir, do you know how to figure out what 25% off $45 is?”
I said, ”Sure, it’s $33.75” (No, I don’t always speak in dollar signs when I talk)
“How did you get that?”
“Well, 25% of $45 is $11.25, and if you subtract that it gets you $33.75”
“Oh, so you have to subtract. I knew I was missing something.”
He then turned to his companion and said, “I took college math, but it just confused me.”
While this encounter made me chuckle (a bit smugly, I might add), it also was troubling. Obviously one incident does not prove anything, but it is emblematic of the many stories in the press about the lagging math scores of our students. These two were in the business section of a bookstore, so they were obviously reasonably well-educated, and had enough interest in business success to buy books about it. If you’ve ever listened to John Spence speak, you know how rare that is. Yet they were seriously deficient in one of the most important business skills of all.
You can study strategy and leadership and innovation and all those other fascinating business topics, but business is fundamentally still about getting the revenue equation right, and about getting a reasonable return on investment, and how can you do that without being able to put two and two together?
Even if you’re not in business, you are bombarded by hundreds of sales pitches and persuasive efforts every day, and many of those compare themselves to other choices or use pseudo-scientific statistics to back their claims. If you can’t make basic comparisons or don’t have at least a passing understanding of statistics, how can you make intelligent choices?
I’m reminded of a time that I had lunch with an older banker, when I was about the same age as those two in the bookstore today. His name was William Moy, and the bank he chaired was extremely successful, so I asked him what was the secret of his success. He said, “To succeed in banking, you need to be able to do just four things really well.”
I had my notebook out, ready to write down his sage advice.
He said, “Add, subtract, multiply and divide.”