Why study maths?

If a child has a love of any arcane yet google-able subject they should, of course, pursue it – but for, say, the unmathematical, the sheer misery of compulsory maths GCSE is, in a world of calculators on smartphones, as crazy as compulsory sword fighting or barrelmaking.

– Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran is a brilliant writer; I have read a lot of her work and her words are thoughtful, wise and very funny. In this quote, she expresses a still widely held belief in the myth that knowledge isn’t needed in the smartphone world – a myth that has been comprehensively demolished by Daisy Cristodoulou. She also chooses to deride the compulsory study of maths, and that is want I want to explore in this blog: the social and cultural norm of asking ‘why study maths?’

There is a subjective-objective paradox to maths. Objectively, maths underpins much of the modern world:

  • mathematical models used in economics, finance and epidemiology
  • the maths of computer science driving most of the modern work place
  • the maths of engineering used in our transport and construction

Subjectively, unless you need it for your career, there is no necessity to know maths to be part of the modern world, we can make use of all the expertise of it without needing to understand the maths behind it, just as we all use electricity without having to think about the science behind it. I think this is what Moran is getting at. Take the utility of maths out of the argument and are you left studying an ‘arcane’ subject such as Ancient Greek? Moran would have it so, and I can see her point. Both Maths and Ancient Greek strike me as being wonderfully rich and stimulating subjects to study; I can see the equivalence. But perhaps where they diverge is in their scope.

Let me offer up some of the greatest thinkers of all time: Plato, the father of philosophy, who had inscribed above the entrance of his Academy ‘let no one ignorant of geometry enter here’, and for whom the Platonic solids are named; Descartes, the father of modern western philosophy, who developed analytic geometry and for whom Cartesian Geometry is named; Bertrand Russell, one of the founders of analytic philosophy, and author of The Principles of Mathematics.

Mathematics has progressed by deeds of the most dazzling intellects in our history. It is a jewel in humankind’s cultural heritage. My case for learning maths rests on this argument for the intellect, undoubtedly it can help one’s career prospects, but lets appeal to its grander status.

So why the arguments against it? Perhaps we are not giving enough attention to the wonderful history of maths. Perhaps at KS3 we need to find time and space in the curriculum to teach its beauty and scope, to teach students the quality of their intellectual inheritance.






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