David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Uncommon Divisors

Division is my thing. I love how a dollar can be perfectly divided into four equal parts each one of which has its own name, a quarter. I love seven as a denominator. The repeating six digits have an eloquent pattern. One seventh equals .142857… Two sevenths is .285714… It’s the same sequence of numbers, just starting with a different first digit. What could be more poetic? Once you learn the pattern, the four always comes after the one, the two always comes after the four, you can impress your friends—or a class of seventh graders anyway—by doing arithmetic in your head faster than the kids can using a calculator. “What is 3/7 as a repeating decimal?” “That would be .428571…”

My affection for arithmetic abates, however, when the divisions are absurd, false, and harmful. When division leads to distinctions without differences, I am dismayed: “At Wake Forest, doan chew know, our students have higher SAT scores than those low-class High Point kids.” Really? Because I’m pretty sure Wake Forest and High Point have more in common than can be easily summarized. Clemson and South Carolina? Bates and Colby? Alabama and Auburn? Many similarities. Which is not to say that everyone plays the “my school is red hot, your school is cold snot” game but there are stories of people getting shot for saying the wrong thing in the wrong sports bar on game day.

Following close on the heals of “the pituitary cases at my college are even taller and more aggressive than the vertically-enabled players at your institution” is the implication that my child is—in all measurable ways that matter—better than yours. Never mind that every religious tradition on the planet suggests that all men are created equal. (Did Thomas Jefferson’s sit next to Jesus in middle school and copy from him or what?) So if this college is in some measurable way better than that one, it follows that the students are the former college are better than those at the latter. Maybe they were potty trained at an earlier age. The conversation typically runs something like this:

Mrs. Pleasantenough: Thank you for asking. My son enrolled at North Cornstalk State College or University.

Mrs. Swarmynose: Oh. (Long pause. Downcast eyes. Throat clearing) I see. (Another lengthy silence.) He wasn’t admitted to Olde Brick University then?

The assumptions and implications of that condescending “oh” are legend. In fewer than a dozen words, Mrs. Swarmynose has communicated the following to Mrs. Pleasantenough:

  1. I know more about colleges than you do.
  2. I know more about your child than you do.
  3. There is something wrong with your child.
  4. There is something wrong with you.
  5. You have failed miserably—and in every quantifiable way—as a parent.
  6. And, although significantly less important, may I point out that you have also failed as a human being.
  7. I have more money than you.
  8. A whole lot more.

A more insightful author than I might point out that Mrs. Swarmynose may have issues of her own, basking in the reflected glory of her children who attend Olde Brick rather than North Cornstalk. Is Mrs. Swarmynose invested in elucidating the difference between where her children go to college and where Mrs. Pleasantenough’s kids attend because Mrs. Swarmynose has too much time on her hands or is looking for meaning in her own life or needs to find a hobby or possibly adopt a dog from the shelter? Who am I to say? I just think that dividing makes more sense when talking about fractions. And that making distinctions between similar schools makes as much sense as talking about the differences among comparable children. Emphasizing similarities—we all love our kids and want what’s best for them—might be less, ahem, “devisive.”

The results are clear: who you are matters more than where you go. Graduates of Olde Brick University can go on to get accepted to graduate school. So do North Cornstalk grads. Nor does North Cornstalk have a monopoly on the market for kids who go on to drink wine in the gutter. There are plenty of sad stories from Olde Brick as well. Rather than divide and conquer, let’s affirm how great it is to have healthy kids. Because, at the risk of changing operations, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Let’s hope that the legions of Mrs. Swarmynoses will add affection and understanding of all children under all circumstances.

For extra credit, tell me how you know which fractions will terminate, 1/4 equals .25, and which fractions will repeat, 3/7 equals .428571… just by looking at the denominator. If there is a four on the bottom, like ¼, the fraction stops: .25, that’s it. But if a seven is the bottom number, the decimal equivalent goes on forever, 4/7 = .571428 571428 571428… Based on their denominators, which fractions terminate and which fractions repeat?

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