A Tiger in Algebra?

March 21, 2005 @ 2:05 pm | Filed under: ,

Maybe not, but there is a Snark there. I was reading Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits,” to the girls, when suddenly Jane leapt to her feet and dashed out of the room. This is a fairly common occurrence. She is a visual learner, and when she has made a connection, her urge is to SHOW it.

She hurtled back to the breakfast table bearing her (and this is going to sound like a joke, but I’m quite serious) beloved Jacobs Algebra book. I have to explain about Jacobs Algebra. For years I’ve been hearing on the homeschooling lists that Harold Jacobs’s mathematics textbooks are “living books” in the Charlotte Mason sense, books written by a man passionate about his subject matter, whose zest for the subject comes through loud and clear in his writing.

Curious as to how a math textbook could convey passion and zest, I checked one of Jacobs’s books out of the library. I can’t testify as to what exactly makes that book “live” because I never got hold of it long enough. Jane whisked it away from me and pored over it for the entire six weeks the library allowed us to keep it. I kid you not. During those weeks, it became de rigeur for our nice, peaceful bedtime-prayer time to be shattered by Important and Fascinating Math Discoveries Jane Forgot to Mention Earlier.

“Mom! I forgot to show you this logarithm chart I made today! See, there was an example in Mathematics-a-Human-Endeavor….” (Apparently this book is too dignified to suffer truncation of its name. It was always the full title, breathlessly hyphenated or earnestly run together: Mathematicsahumanendeavor.)

Eventually the precious book had to go back to the library. Calamity! Despair! This was shortly before Christmas, and consolation arrived to soothe bereft Jane. Mathematicsahumanendeavor’s sequel: Elementary Algebra, its very title poetic in its simplicity. O joy! O rapture! O bewildered but accomodating parents!

And so Jacobs Algebra became Jane’s distraction-from-chores book of choice. Which explains, I guess, her abrupt departure from the table during my riveting (or so I thought) recitation of “The Hunting of the Snark.” The Snark was in Algebra, and Jane had to show us. What do you know, there it was! It’s because of the Butcher, of course.

From “Fit the Fifth: The Beaver’s Lesson”:

So engrossed was the Butcher, he heeded them not,
As he wrote with a pen in each hand,
And explained all the while in a popular style
Which the Beaver could well understand.

“Taking Three as the subject to reason about—
A convenient number to state—
We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
By One Thousand diminished by Eight.

“The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
By Nine Hundred and Ninety Two:
Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be
Exactly and perfectly true.

“The method employed I would gladly explain,
While I have it so clear in my head,
If I had but the time and you had but the brain—
But much yet remains to be said.

It does indeed. But the rest of the poem remained unsaid that morning. Jacobs Algebra had entered the building and taken center stage. Poor Lewis Carroll; how can he compete with a masterwork of living mathematics?

I would gladly explain—had you but the time and I but the brain.

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