A couple of days ago I watched a video that really depressed me. Here‘s a link to a local news story from Ankeny, Iowa – I’d encourage you to take a look at the news clip there (unfortunately, I can’t embed it here). The story concerns a 6th grade student who has memorized the decimal expansion of pi to 340 or so digits.

In and of itself, this might not seem like a particularly newsworthy achievement – as any Pi Day aficionado can tell you, there are people who have memorized more digits. Perhaps what makes it newsworthy is the fact that the student is only twelve years old, or, more perversely, the fact that his accomplishment came in response to the challenge of his math teacher, who asked his students to memorize as many digits of pi as possible. By far the most depressing part of the video is a brief clip that shows all the students in the classroom mindlessly rattling off successive digits of pi. The lack of enthusiasm is almost palpable.

Now, I don’t want to come off as too much of a curmudgeon here. I have no doubt that this student is stoked that he made it on to TV for an academic achievement, regardless of the actual merits of that achievement (at least the student is aware enough to remark that the information he’s memorized will probably never be put to use). That’s fine – he has every right to be proud of himself for making it onto the local news. What really gets my goat is the fact that this teacher thought it would be a good idea to make students memorize digits of pi. I can think of few better ways to dampen a natural enthusiasm for mathematical learning than by asking students to memorize a series of digits that will have no practical value for any of them, ever. It would be like having an English teacher ask students to memorize a random string of words which, taken collectively, didn’t teach the student anything about vocabulary or grammar.

Is there any benefit to this exercise? According to the teacher, “The ability to memorize that much stuff has to help tremendously.” Well, ok. But aren’t there more important things to learn about in math class? Is math class really the best venue to discover a talent like this? I am fairly certain that students in Singapore aren’t spending class time and homework time memorizing digits of pi. I’m sure this teacher has good intentions, but I fail to see much value in this apparently newsworthy event. The mystique of the number pi, I suppose, never fails to attract attention.

If this exercise is what gets this sixth grader interested in math, then by all means he should memorize as many digits of pi as he can. For the vast majority of students, however, such an exercise is probably beyond tedious. I can only hope that this news story doesn’t inspire other teachers to compel other students to do the same thing.