In defence of mathematics

10Jun08

Simon Jenkins is arguing on the Guardian website that learning mathematics in school is a waste of time.

In exactly those words.

He starts off by criticising a recent study (PDF) by Reform. The study is mostly critical of mathematics teaching in the UK, concluding that it compares unfavourably with many other developed and developing countries – claims that are certainly not unfounded. It recommends that governmental control over syllabuses be reduced and that the topics covered in compulsory mathematics education be made more rigorous, to encourage independent thinking and problem solving.

Jenkins disagrees. He writes:

In the age of computers, maths beyond simple and applied arithmetic is needed only by specialists. Ramming it down pupils’ throats in case they may one day need it is like making us all know how to recalibrate a carburettor on the offchance that we might become racing drivers. Maths is a “skill to a purpose”, and we would should ponder the purpose before overselling the skill.

Jenkins’ basis for his arguments? His claim to have studied “advanced maths” – up until the age of 16. However much he might claim exams have been ‘dumbed down’ since he was a teenager, the subjects he lists having studied have not been considered ‘advanced’ for quite some time – even the differential calculus, which has since been moved to A-level papers, has not been considered advanced since the 1820s. Jenkins is not that old.

He claims to have enjoyed his studies of maths – but abandoned them in 6th form in favour of Latin and Greek, which were apparently “marginally” more useful. Elsewhere in the article, he claims that: “not just history and geography, but economics, health, psychology, citizenship, politics and law” are more useful than maths. Britain, according to Jenkins, needs “more financiers, consultants, marketers, publicists and lawyers” – not mathematicians.

It is true that for all the subjects and career paths, one does not necessarily need to be a research-level mathematician. But:

  • Economics, even at A-level, requires maths. Someone with a shaky grasp of equations and graphs will struggle to follow even basic economic theory, let alone study it to post-secondary level.
  • Psychology, in common with the sciences and medicine, require maths – particularly statistics. How can results and scientific tests be analysed otherwise?
  • Lawyers, marketers and publicists may not need trigonometry every day, but they certainly need problem-solving and analytical skills – both of which can be honed by, among other things, studying maths.
  • Subjects such as citizenship, politics and health also may not require equations, but they certainly involve graphs and numbers. If your doctor offered you a treatment with a 5% chance of nasty side effects, would you take it? What about a one in twenty chance? What does a 28% approval rating for a Prime Minister actually mean? People born in England outnumber people born in Scotland or Wales nine to one – so how many people might fly the cross of St George next time England qualify for a football tournament?
  • And if Jenkins believes that financiers and consultants don’t need maths, he is sadly mistaken. Just ask the legions of financial service firms who turned up every year at my maths faculty, desperate to recruit finalists. Even outside the specialist areas of banking, tax and actuarial work, a strong grasp of numbers and the ability to use a spreadsheet make candidates for jobs much, much more attractive to employers.

Jenkins admits, it must be said, that most if not all jobs require basic arithmetic. He’s right. But the ability to use basic arithmetic with confidence comes from having studied more difficult topics, such as algebra. Understanding and interpreting graphs becomes more intuitive after studying calculus. Reading a newspaper article that talks about percentages is easier when one has studied simple statistics. Because all the new skills build on the previous ones, the essential skills are reinforced until they become second nature – or at least they should be.

And this is not something unique to mathematics. Jenkins’ article becomes even less impressive when it is noted that his criticisms could be levelled at almost every other subject. There is not one subject where everything taught will be useful every day for the rest of one’s life. That does not render them useless. I don’t recall many specific names and dates from my history lessons, but I did learn the basics of how to write structured essays. The method by which an oxbow lake is formed has never ever been useful to me, but the ability to derive data from maps and pictures has served me well on many occasions. I doubt Jenkins has to translate Thucydides or Ovid on a daily basis, even working for the Guardian, but I imagine he uses the writing skills that he developed when, as part of studying classics, he did have to do that.

Maths is important. It is important for the economy of the UK, which desperately needs well-trained mathematical specialists to work in all sectors. And it is important for those students who find the beauty of the subject compelling – because it is from them that the innovations that will launch the next generation of technology will come. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, is not just a computer scientist but also a mathematician.

But it is important for all other students. Some will study maths because they see it as a means to an end, a pathway to a highly paid career in banking or finance. Some will need it as an auxiliary subject for economics, physics, biology or medicine, to name just a few. Some – a few, but they are there – will study it for the intrinsic beauty of Euler’s formula or the Mandelbrot set. But even the students that don’t fall into these categories will need the skills it provides.

Reducing the content of maths syllabuses is not the answer to Britain’s decline in the number of qualified scientists and technology professionals. But nor is writing off the entire subject as useless in today’s world. Simon Jenkins, by characterising maths as a “curricular archaism”, displays not just his ignorance of what the subject actually involves but also a wilful determination to ignore the reality of the matter. Mathematics is important. It has always been important, in this day and age it is important, and it will continue to be important. Pythagoras’ theorem is as true today as it was when it was first proved, over two thousand years ago, and the skills acquired by learning, proving and understanding the theorem are still as useful, too.

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2 Responses to “In defence of mathematics”

  1. I didn’t know it was the role of school to train you for your occupation later. Very little of my schooling has had any direct, practical application in my current job, and I don’t mind. School is about teaching you how to think critically, push your intellectual comfort boundaries, and learn and work in groups… or it should be, anyway.

  2. 2 Laura

    Thanks for commenting!

    I would quite agree. There is absolutely no job for which one leaves school fully trained and qualified. That doesn’t mean EPOS checkout training should become mandatory for the under-16s, though.

    There’s a lot of evidence that pupils today are being taught to pass exams. (I know I was, back in the day). That in itself is a skill, but it’s one of so many that should be taught, and not all of them can be taught in a vacuum. Skills like critical thinking are best learnt by applying them. And maths is one of the subjects in which one can do that. Plus, it can be interesting and useful in its own right too (however much Jenkins would like to disagree). Which can only be a good thing.


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