One of these things is not like the other

John Venn of the eponymous diagram turned 180 this month, or at least reached the 180th anniversary of his existence. In case you were wondering, he didn’t call his diagram a ‘Venn diagram’ but Eulerian circles and that’s because he sort of ripped them off from Euler who had his own version of a Venn-like diagram. Fortunately this didn’t cause too much outrage at the time because the diagrams kind of languished in obscurity until the early 1960s, when we were inflicted with the new math. I did not know this at the time, but there was a very logical reason for injecting more logic into math education. According to the internet, the reason behind our childhood trauma was the success of the Russian Sputnik satellite program. In order to counter the threat of the intellectual prowess of Soviet engineers, we all had to pull up our collective mathematics socks. Just one more example of a small group of people ruining things for the rest of us, but I digress.

Here are some other observations about Venn diagrams and the new math.

1. That whole thing about learning the ‘base this’ and ‘base that’ number systems (that is, anything other than 10, the number system we actually use) was all the fault of new math. By using number systems more complex than our own, we were supposed to understand the nature of numbers better. Unfortunately it didn’t contribute at all to our ability to add and subtract.

2. In grade 1 and 2 we had a math aid called rods, which the internet tells me are more correctly called ‘Cuisenaire rods’. This is what happens when a violinist treads into math territory (see above re spoiling things). Anyhow, these rods are a set of 10 coloured sticks of varying lengths that represent all of the numbers between 1 and 10. I guess the zero, widely considered the one of the most important inventions in mathematics, was not considered important. However, although these rods were supposed to “expand children’s latent mathematical abilities in a creative and enjoyable fashion” they fell into disfavour in the 1980s, probably partially due to the propensity for six and seven year old boys to use the ’10’ rod as a weapon.

3. You can download a template for a Venn diagram from a website of educational support materials. I am tempted to say that if you are teaching Venn diagrams and don’t know how to construct one without a template (circle, meet circle) perhaps you should find a different line of work. But I’ll just keep that thought to myself.

4. Despite the downfall of the new math, virtually everyone knows what a Venn diagram is. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that if you draw one to illustrate a point everybody will understand what you are talking about. The bad thing is sharknado.

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