Wasn’t it P.T. Barnum who stated that there was a sucker born every minute, and two to part him with his money? The latest iteration of this comes from Body & Mind Builders, a company in Manhattan that provides yoga, pilates and music programs to adults and children. Somehow these well meaning folks got hoodwinked by an outfit called “Abacus After School.” Kudos to whomever is behind this for merging every buzzword and cultural stereotype we associate with high achievement in mathematics: it’s old, it’s Asian, it’s multi-cultural, it’s multi-sensory. While I don’t doubt that using an abacus is fun and somewhat useful in teaching children about base 10 thinking, the notion that a parent should subject their child to hundreds of hours of instruction (and thousands of dollars in payments) in the hopes of transforming their child into a calculating powerhouse is just a little bit, how should we say, “19th century?” Once we again we get embroiled in the old misconception that confounds calculating with mathematics. Once again we are frightened into believing that there are hordes of Asian kiddies pushing themselves ahead of our bonehead sons and daughters, leaving us at the bottom of the mathematical barrel. Once again we are left with the impression that a typical Japanese kid spends his time in a stuffy classroom moving beads along metal rods back and forth (or, even more embarrassingly, spasmodically tapping his fingers on a table) calculating America’s interest on its debt payments to China, while our children loaf around at home playing video games and eating fatty foods. Very impressive stuff indeed.
So let’s be a little realistic here: the only people who benefit from teaching children how to use an abacus are the people who build, market and sell them. What this video proves is that Japanese parents suffer from the same math anxiety as their American counterparts and are foolish enough to send their children to a program that has no known educational benefits (other than making for excellent YouTube footage.)