Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Don’t do the maths!


Journalist Simon Jenkins has launched a broadside against the teaching of maths in school, or at least against taking it seriously. He goes further than Andrew Hacker, who argues prominently for a focus on more concrete mathematical skills.

No one would argue that pupils should not be able to add, subtract and multiply. But I studied higher maths, from calculus to number theory, and have forgotten the lot. All the maths I have needed comes from John Allen Paulos’s timeless manual, Innumeracy. It is mostly how to understand proportion and risk, and tell when a statistician is trying to con you.

Presumably, once you know how to count to 1000 you’ve learned enough. (I’m wondering about this claim about his having “studied higher maths”. At least according to Wikipedia his university subjects were philosophy, politics, and economics. Now, I have no doubt that some people can learn very advanced mathematics in their spare time and understand it wonderfully. I wouldn’t even object to them saying they had “studied” the subject. But if your private study of mathematics left you with no memory of what you thought you had learned, that suggests that perhaps the fault was in your mode of study, and not in the subject. It’s rather like someone who says, “There’s no point learning to swim. I spent years on it, and I still can’t cross a pool without drowning.”

And why is it that statisticians are always accused of trying to “con” people? Is it that statisticians are particularly dishonest? Or is it that statisticians make things sufficiently clear that you can see where you might disagree with them. What subject would you study to understand when a journalist is trying to con you? There isn’t one, because the journalist’s con is ambiguous, and for the most part his claims are clouded in rhetorical smog.

Then there’s this:

I agree with the great mathematician GH Hardy, who accepted that higher maths was without practical application. It was rather a matter of intellectual stimulus and beauty.

Now, GH Hardy was indeed a great mathematician. He probably knew more about higher maths, from calculus to number theory, than even Simon Jenkins in his prime (before he forgot everything). But I think we can also agree that the man who wrote in 1940

No one has yet discovered any warlike purpose to be served by the theory of numbers or relativity, and it seems unlikely that anyone will do so for many years

did not have the most acute vision of the scope of mathematical application. In any case, Hardy’s goal was not to argue for or against the potential utility of mathematics, but rather to defend mathematics against the charge of uselessness — basically, to defend it against people like Jenkins.

Any league table that has China at the top, Britain at 26th and America at 36th tells me something more important than merely who is good at maths. If the US and Britain – among the most vigorous economies and most successful at science – are so bad at maths, it suggests their young people are applying themselves to something more useful. Chinese students are rushing to British and US universities to join them….

Maths is merely an easy subject to measure, nationally and internationally.

 

I am reminded of a bumper sticker I saw in Florida, responding to the popular boastful messages that parents would paste on, saying “My kid is an honor roll student at Dingdong Middle School”; the response said “My kid can beat up your honor roll student.” This is that bully-boy bumper sticker expanded to a national scale. Let the inferior races waste their time on mathematics. Our kids will learn how to be “vigorous” and kick their asses.

Jerome Karabel’s wonderful book The Chosen describes how elite universities in the US in the first half of the 20th century, dismayed at how the meritocratic elements of their admissions process were being abused by Jews, who were simply outperforming their gentile compatriots on admissions tests, leading to the freshman class at Harvard in 1922 being more than 20% Jewish. The response, driven by fear that Jews would “drive away the Gentiles” (in the words of Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell) was to de-emphasise quantitative measures and tests, in favour of the all-important “character” of applicants, a quality husbanded mainly by WASP families in exclusive boarding schools.

There’s kind of a Nietzschean flavor here: Mathematics has replaced Christianity as the intellectual tool used by the weak (nerds) to dominate their natural superiors (men of action and vigor like Jenkins). The soul-breaking catechism has been replaced by the binomial theorem. The priests are statisticians and bureaucrats, obsessed with counting and what can be measured. I am reminded of a remark by CS Lewis (I can’t find the exact quote now), that soft virtues like love and mercy had come to be more discussed than rigid virtues like chastity and courage, because it is easier to persuade yourself that you have been loving than that you have been chaste or courageous.

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