By the time I had grabbed my iPhone, slid to unlock, put in the passcode, found Calculator, punched in the numbers, punched in the right numbers, and read her the result, my wife had easily figured the answer to a tax problem on a scrap of paper. Worth her studying math for 12 years in school?
“No,” is the clear answer given by Simon Jenkins in yesterday’s Guardian.com, “For Britain’s pupils, maths is even more pointless than Latin.” I completely agree. For one thing, except for what she regards as the most useless subject of all times, Euclidean geometry, she wasn’t doing math, or “maths,” as they say over there, at all. She was, basically, learning to replace a calculator.
Now although such a skill may come in handy at times, it’s not mathematics. Mathematics is proving theorems — thinking up and solving puzzles. Now I happen to think that’s a wonderful field; I have a Ph.D. in it myself. I totally agree with GH Hardy, quoted by Jenkins as remarking that mathematics “must be justified as art if it can be justified at all.” I don’t find it at all unusual, for example, that mathematicians will praise an exceptionally elegant new proof of an already established theorem.
What should children be taught in school? My answer: how to go out into the world, find stuff, decide whether it’s right, and use it. They should always be working on something, on writing or making or building something. When they’ve developed the appropriate level of proficiency, they can move on. I have no idea how much of this should be done in formal classroom settings.
Boyd suggested that such ability is the secret to success in life.
We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in. Strategic Game 45
Musashi said much the same thing way back in 1645, and he was only interested in killing people with swords:
- Cultivate a wide range of interests in the arts
- Be knowledgable in a variety of occupations
- Nurture the ability to perceive the truth in all matters
- Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye
[From the last section of the “Earth” book, in the Book of Five Rings.]
So a familiarity with mathematics and its results, particularly statistics, which is necessary in order to develop “the ability to perceive the truth in all matters,” probably belongs in everybody’s repertoire of skills. But that’s as far as I would go. After that, the abilities to read, think, write and communicate become vastly more important. Oh, and let’s not forget the arts. Where would Apple be today if Steve Jobs hadn’t sat in on that calligraphy course?