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New Math

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September 2013

Sooner or later it usually happens.  The old gives way to the new.  Sometimes it’s a good thing.  Newness regenerates long lost excitement.  We celebrate a new year, buy a new car, start a new job, or chart a new adventure. Newness can also provide improvement. We dumped our typewriters to make room for computer keyboards.  We exchanged above ground telephone lines for buried fiber-optic cables.  We often measure progress by what’s new.

But not all changes work out so well. When the Soviets took the lead in space exploration with the 1957 launch of Sputnik, some believed that our teaching methods were lagging.  The National Science Foundation began to promote new ways of educating secondary school students.  It spread to the primary schools.  The most notable change was “new math,” which emphasized theory instead of drill.  Teachers started talking about things like sets, duodecimals, and binary numbers rather than working on multiplication tables.  Teachers didn’t understand it very well, students even less. Parents struggling with kids’ homework were in the worst shape of all.  By 1970 new math was junked.  It currently sits in a large pile along with the slide rule.

Although new math has been gone for decades, a recent survey raises question about students’ math skills-and about far more important things.  Researcher Dan Joseph asked students at highly regarded George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia to sign a petition allowing fourth trimester abortions.  Those schooled in old math will remember from their blackboard days that a pie cut in thirds only has three pieces.  Yet the students just signed the petition, barely a question asked.  It would have been comical if it weren’t so sad.  Math skills aside, highly educated university students were willing to sign a petition legalizing the killing of innocent unborn babies.  And in fairness to the students, those same results probably could have been replicated on virtually any busy street corner in the county.  Why?

It has much to do with value systems.  Values are closely held beliefs that form the basis for our decisions and actions, things like family, friendship, good health, and liberty.  Values can be handed down through the ages or started anew during the course of a lifetime.  We form our values by what we read, watch, and hear from a variety of sources.  Sociologists tell us that there are stages in the formation of values.  Starting at birth, we soak up everything around us.  By age eight, we begin to model what we have learned, sometimes copying their values of others.  By age fourteen, we develop social relationships and values.  Generally, by adulthood our values are fully formed and can last a lifetime.  It usually takes a stronger value to upset one already formed.  For example we may value personal freedom, but if we choose to abuse our freedom by drinking to excess, the value of good health-if strong enough-may cause us to stop.

The support for legal abortion flows from two values-freedom of choice and self-fulfillment.  In the 40 years since Roe v. Wade, abortion supporters have held the belief that women have the freedom to choose what they will with their own bodies, no matter what.  Of course, the “what” is really a “who”-another human being. Abortion supporters also hold as important the belief that everything must yield to one’s own needs and desires.  Whatever the circumstances of an abortion, the result is the same: self-needs are met, the other’s life is taken.  With all its might, our culture has drilled these values into the minds and hearts of our young people.  The signing of that petition was predictable.

To counter abortion, it is not enough to teach that abortion is morally wrong. Abortion supporters accept legal abortion as a matter of personal value.  For them, legal abortion is the new morality.  Instead, we must instill a far greater value that causes us to recoil at the thought of legalized abortion in any trimester.  The value is the dignity of life.  It is grounded in the truth that in His love, God has gifted us with each other.  It holds that every human being has something to offer the world.  It recognizes that another’s life is no less an important than our own and is worthy of as much protection as we would seek for ourselves.  Instilled with this value, our decisions will be life affirming, not life destroying,

How do we build a pro-life value?  For one, by using the gifts God has given us. Nature can provide many lessons about the uniqueness and wonder of every person.  Take walks with your children through a garden, where they can see how flowers of different sizes, shapes, and colors harmonize when given a chance. Let them grow plants from seed, which gives them an opportunity to nurture life and to experience the excitement of bloom.

Building pro-life values is also about experiencing the lessons of sacrifice.  Let your children know the importance of serving others.  Get them involved in family projects or with community organizations that will help them understand the value and rewards of giving.  Help them learn the difference between virtue and vice, and encourage the pursuit of virtue. As your children search for role models, help them to find the good ones.  In age appropriate ways, give them opportunities to learn about and marvel at the miracle of birth.

Make prayer an important part of instilling the value of life.  Have each person in family or school pray for an unborn baby by name throughout a spiritual pregnancy.  Having prayed for unborn babies, our children are much more likely to reject the calls, and pressures, to abort them.

There is so much we can do to instill the value of life.  But it won’t happen by a single homily during Respect Life month, a poster in the rear of church, or silence at home and school.  The culture works hard to instill the wrong values.  Our efforts must be just as unrelenting.

As we start a new school year, our children are even more on our minds.  Let’s instill a lasting value: the dignity of life.  Then abortion will go the way of new math.

Paul Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on pro-life topics.  He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, and have six kids.

©  2013 Paul V. Esposito.  Culture of Life.  Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted.  Comments?  Visit us at

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