Today’s Guardian has a classic piece of click-bait by the opinionated and ignorant AIDS-denialist Simon Jenkins, in which he claims that maths is a waste of time for school students, and government obssession with maths will make schools intolerable and authoritarian. His article is leavened in equal measure with sneering at any politician who tries to find a solution to any problem, haughty dismissal of any attempt to regularize or monitor teaching practice, and a sly dose of cheap stereotyping to boot. At time of writing it is completely buried on the Guardian website (at least this newspaper has some shame!) and has attracted 1594 comments, mostly disagreeing with his pathetic and stupid thesis.
The thing that really stands out for me is not the vacuity and shallowness of the arguments, but the existence of the article itself. Can anyone imagine a Japanese, Chinese or Korean newspaper bothering to publish an opinion piece arguing that maths is a waste of time? Can anyone imagine an ordinary Japanese, Chinese or Korean citizen being one-eyed enough (or worked up enough) to comment on such an article agreeing with it? The existence of such theories in East Asia is pretty questionable, I would say: there are lots of Japanese for whom maths is a waste of time, but the number of Japanese who think teaching maths is a waste of time would be pretty small, I think – certainly not sufficient to support an article on the topic in a major newspaper. If anyone wants to look at why Britain is failing in the (shudder) “global race,” articles like this by “public thinkers” give you a big hint as to the answer: an ex-editor of the Times actually believes that trying to improve maths teaching is a “race to the bottom” against China, and apparently believes schools shouldn’t teach things if they are a waste of time to the majority of their pupils.
I wonder what Jenkins thinks schools should be doing, if not teaching material that is a waste of time? Shakespeare is clearly out, as is most of history. Apparently philosophy is important because it helps one to understand formal logic (just putting aside the preponderance of mathematicians amongst the classical philosophers, for the sake of “argument”…) Jenkins is an AIDS denialist, so I guess he thinks sex education is a waste of time too. I imagine he thinks geography enormously relevant, but he would probably prefer it to focus on map reading and memorizing the names of capital cities – all that stuff about social geography and global warming is irrelevant, surely. And he wouldn’t want kids being able to calculate age-standardized mortality rates, because then they might notice that AIDS is a big issue in some parts of the world …
Most of all these articles – which appear fairly regularly in the British press – make me angry because of the toxic mix of contradictory stereotypes about maths (and by extension, mathematicians) that they promulgate. On the one hand maths teaching is a brutal exercise in crushing creativity, because maths is a fundamentally joyless and mechanical process that depends on rote learning and soul-destroying repetition; but only a few people are actually good at maths – presumably due to some kind of innate talent or special powers – so there’s no point in teaching the rest of us anything. Not only are these two ideas fundamentally incompatible, but they also suggest some kind of contrast with the humanities in which studying the humanities is always and everywhere liberating and enlightening, and hours of soulless repetition (or indeed the development of any kind of skills connected to such study) are unnecessary. Tell that to a good writer, or a ballerina … Jenkins’s view somehow manages to simultaneously belittle both mathematics and the disciplines he sets up in opposition to it.
He also manages to belittle the Chinese when he says
I once visited Chinese schools; they were like communist drill halls, factories of pressure, discipline and childhood misery
What’s that, Jenkins? You visited “Chinese schools”? All of them, was it? Maybe just 10% of them? Or did you mean to say “a Chinese school” and just couldn’t quite get yourself to spit it out? A solid grounding in mathematics might help you with that whole singular/plural distinction thing, and it might also help you to calculate what proportion of “Chinese schools” you visited, to help you understand how representative your experience was. But I can tell you this for free, Jenkins: I studied in British schools (probably, at a guess, more schools than you ever visited in China), and I can tell you now: they were like communist drill halls, factories of discipline and childhood misery. There’s even a famous British song about how terrible they are. At least Chinese kids leave their schools capable of doing basic mathematics. You might want to think about that before you make sweeping statements about a nation of a billion people, based on a couple of hours in a Shanghai school.
Many of the commenters on the article have said this, but I’d like to repeat it here: if you want to see the intellectual justification for Britain’s decline in the modern world, articles like this make it as clear as day. Here we have a senior public figure who was an editor of Britain’s most respected paper (the Times), writing from the nation that invented calculus about how teaching mathematics is a waste of time. That, right there, expresses Britain’s decline in a nutshell. Thank you, Jenkins, for making it clear. Now to the back of the class with you, until you have learnt your times tables.