Simon Jenkins: Our fixation with maths doesn’t add up

in The Guardian, Thursday 10 March 2016. A random paragraph:

There is nothing, except religion, as conservative as a school curriculum. It is drenched in archaic prejudice and vested interest. When the medieval church banned geography as an offence against the Bible, what had been the queen of the sciences never recovered. Instead Latin dominated the “grammar” curriculum into the 20th century, to the expense of all science. Today maths is the new Latin.

Read the full article. Refutation anyone?


One thought on “Simon Jenkins: Our fixation with maths doesn’t add up

  1. I too was outraged by this article by Simon Jenkins which contains gross errors of fact or basic understanding in almost every paragraph.

    However Jenkins’s paragraph cited above, (which paragraph was curiously was omitted from the printed version of the Guardian), repeats a simplistic version of the proposition that “mathematics is the new Latin”.

    Rather than debunking Jenkins’s philistinism, which is relatively straightforward, (and certainly needs to be done!), I would like instead here to suggest that the proposition that mathematics is the new Latin is not by any means trivial, and that it has certain political and social aspects which mathematicians tend not to discuss.

    This idea was I believe first elaborated in a far more interesting form in an essay by the French mathematician Pierre Samuel in 1974 entitled “Mathématiques, Latin et Sélection des Élites”. In this essay Samuel argues that mathematics replaced Latin in its historic role of selecting elites, and that the principal social function of school mathematics in modern industrial society is to give the process of recruiting managerial elites an appearance of objectivity, and by implication of democracy, because of the transparency and rigour of the associated examination system. In Samuel’s words, this serves to “mask the fact that the elite is recruited primarily on the basis of birth and money”. He also argues that this social function influences the type of mathematics taught in schools and the manner in which it is taught. Furthermore he argues that if one considers instead recruitment to technical work in sectors which require a degree, but where the job allows very little autonomy and even less power or status, then for the selection of these sectors mathematics has become if not the “Latin of the poor” then at least the “Latin of middle managers”.

    Although Samuel’s analysis is more than 40 years old I believe it still has relevance. Of course it is undeniable that mathematics underpins the whole of modern technology, and that a deep knowledge of mathematics is essential to the development of the modern world in ways which Jenkins does not begin to understand. However it is also true that if one examines the actually existing system of teaching and examining of school mathematics, then in the UK at least, a strong case can be made that it is a system which, for a large part of the population, presents itself not primarily as a means to provide skills which they are likely to use, but rather as a means to perpetuate a system of social privilege in education, while lending a spurious objectivity to the process.

    Of course Jenkins doesn’t really understand anything about this at all: the virulence of his denunciation stems not from a social concern for the elimination of privilege, but from the fact that he fails to understand the fundamental relationship of mathematics to modern science and technology. Nevertheless although he misses the important point entirely, there is a small grain of truth in his lament that a motley array of his preferred alternative subjects are “crowded out” by “a political obsession with maths”:

    “The reason is depressingly clear. Maths is merely an easy subject to measure….it thus facilitates the bureaucratic craving for targetry and control…”

    The underlying obsession Jenkins refers to is not caused by an inexplicable bureaucratic craving, but by a requirement on the part of the existing social order to be able to reproduce itself by means which appear superficially rational, and therefore justifiable.

    Pierre Samuel’s essay is in “Pourqoui la mathématique?” Édition 10/18 , Union Générale D’éditions, Paris VI, 1974.

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