I first encountered the Life of Fred series of math textbooks, written by Stanley Schmidt, when I heard the girls in one of my homeschool science groups talking about them.  The girls were quite enthusiastic about the books, which immediately piqued my interest, as children rarely get excited about textbooks of any variety.  I have since read two of the books Life of Fred – Fractions and Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology.  My feelings about these books are mixed.  I understand why the girls I teach like them, but I also think that adults should make sure to use these books with considerable caution.

Life of Fred is an extensive series.  It starts with very elementary topics such as addition and telling time and continues up through calculus, statistics, and linear algebra.  The individual books do stand on their own, but it is apparent that they are intended to be used as a series; there are references to other books embedded in the text.  The most unusual aspect of Life of Fred is that it the math is presented in story form, with information about other subjects woven into the narrative.  These features are key to the appeal that these books hold for my science students, who are not especially enamored of math on its own.

Aspects of Life of Fred are absolutely charming.  It is written in a breezy, light-hearted style and a general interest in learning and knowledge comes across in the text.  The story isn’t great literature, but it is readable, which is more than can be said for many math textbooks.  Another feature that I like a great deal is that the author encourages self-study to the greatest extent possible.  Learning how to learn independently is one of the best educational outcomes possible, and should be encouraged more.

I am less enthusiastic about some of the content (or lack thereof) in Life of Fred.  The math is fine, but it is not nearly as rigorous as the books suggest it is.  The author proudly proclaims that these books don’t require students to engage in lots of mind-numbing, repetitive calculation, which is true.  However, I would suggest that if Life of Fred is used as a primary math curriculum, students will not get nearly enough practice with basic calculations.  The sad fact is most people need quite a bit of repetition if they are going to remember how to do calculations.  More importantly, Life of Fred does not give sufficiently challenging or thought provoking word problems.  Word problems ought to be the strength of this curriculum, and it is true that most of the problems are word problems, which is great.  However, it is also true that most of the word problems are easy.

Many families who use Life of Fred use it as a supplement to a more traditional curriculum.  In this context, it makes a lot of sense.  It is a perfectly reasonable way for students to review skills they already know, learn some off-beat math topics on their own (using Roman numerals would be an example), and work on independent study skills.  If it was advertised as being a supplementary curriculum, I would feel much better about it.  However, it claims to be a core curriculum, and since it is marketed squarely at homeschool families, I am concerned that some users will not have enough educational experience to spot the weaknesses and inadequacies and do what is necessary to plug these education holes.

The problem of promising more than it can deliver is more serious in Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology than it is in Life of Fred – Fractions.  The book on fractions does not claim to teach any subject other than math.  However, the beginning algebra book claims to teach biology as well (there is a second book on beginning algebra which purports to cover economics).  Let me be clear: Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology does NOT teach biology.  It gives nice little overviews of some important topics in biology, and has a few lovely little anecdotes about biology, but it leaves more than it includes.  It leaves out all details that might be intellectually challenging (why would anyone pretend that photosynthesis is simple?), it leaves out entire branches of biology (evolution and ecology are the most glaring omissions), and it leaves out almost every mention of scientific method, experiments, and interpreting data (which is weird and puzzling, because this is the most mathematical aspect of biology).

I wouldn’t object to the omissions in Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology if the book claimed to be a math book with a little bit of biology added for fun.  However, that is not the claim the book makes.  It claims to teach biology.  Indeed, at the end, it congratulates students on “knowing biology”.  

Stanley Schmidt, the author, comes across as a man who likes learning and thinking.  This makes it all the more disappointing that he takes such a cavalier attitude towards intellectual rigor.  The missed opportunities that these books represent are frustrating, to say the least.  That these books are aimed at homeschool families who may not have the experience to fully judge them makes me think poorly of the series, even though I want very much to like it.

A final criticism that I have of Life of Fred relates to a secondary story line that appears in the questions only (not in the main text).  This story line involves Joe and Darlene, two not-very-bright young adults who are dating.  Joe is interested primarily in food while Darlene is interested primarily in marrying Joe.  The Joe and Darlene stories are chock-full of old stereotypes that might be considered humorous, but which don’t do anyone any good.  Why is Darlene fixated on marrying someone who is clearly an emotionally stunted dolt?  Why doesn’t Joe have any interests other than eating revolting quantities of unhealthy food?  I don’t think the Joe and Darlene stories are going to hurt anyone, exactly, but I would describe their presence as a definite flaw.

No review of Life of Fred would be complete without a mention of the series’ religious overtones.  The book is clearly coming from a Christian point of view.  In general, I would say that the Christian overtones are sweet, rather than problematic.  For instance, we learn that Fred gives a percentage of his income to the collection at his Sunday school and there are occasional biblical references.  I don’t think there is anything inappropriate about these references for a homeschool audience, though it clearly makes the books unsuited for a public school market.  However, I would suggest that parents who are not Christians would probably want to talk about this aspect of the books with their children if they elect to use them.  It could be a lesson in diversity.  The one place I noticed the Christian theme was perhaps a problem was in the omission of evolution from the book that was theoretically about biology.  However, that book was missing an awful lot, and I hesitate to blame the book’s Christian point of view for these shortcomings, because they could just as easily come from lack of academic rigor stemming from something less politically and socially loaded… like laziness.

Life of Fred is full of promise but deeply flawed.  Reading it made me realize how much potential there is for innovative math books for children.  I can only hope that Life of Fred will inspire some competition that fixes the flaws that mar this otherwise promising product.

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