I am not sneering; I am genuinely asking.
For the last few months I have been education blogging. I’ve never been much good at working out site stats, and things are made harder by my education blog sharing its numbers, or all the ones that I see, with my personal blog. But, going only by how the comment rate has gone from zero to detectable, my education blog is now showing occasional but definite signs of life. I reckon that education blogging is rather like teaching. To begin with you often achieve very little, but if you stick at it, good things may eventually start happening.
In connection with my education blog, and in connection with the helping out that I am now doing once a week at one of the supplementary schools run by the think tank Civitas, I find myself asking: what is the point of learning maths? I entirely accept that there is a point, in fact many points. It’s just that I don’t know much about what these points are. Some of the boys at the supplementary school – two in particular spring to mind – strike me as showing real mathematical talent, at any rate compared to the others. What can I say to them that might encourage them – and encourage their parents to encourage them – to get every bit as far in maths as they can? What use is maths? For lots of people, especially for lots of teachers and lots of children, that is surely a question worth knowing answers to.
I don’t need to be convinced about the usefulness of arithmetic. People cheating you out of change in a shop, or loading you with debt obligations that you did not understand when you made the deal – working out floor areas and carpet costs – getting enough nails and screws and planks when you are DIYing about the house – just generally keeping track of work. I get all that. And, I find, I’m pretty good at teaching arithmetic to young boys and girls, partly because I do indeed understand how important it is.
But what about the kind of maths that really is maths, as opposed to mere arithmetic, with lots of complicated sorts of squiggles? What about infinite series, irrational numbers, non-Euclidian geometry, that kind of thing? I, sort of, vaguely, know that such things have all manner of practical and technological applications. But what are they? What practical use is the kind of maths you do at university? I hit my maths ceiling with a loud bump at school, half way through doing A levels and just when all the truly mathematical stuff got seriously started, and I never learned much even about what the practical uses of it all were, let alone how to do it.
I also get that maths has huge aesthetic appeal, and that it is worth studying and experiencing for the pure fun and the pure beauty of it all, just like the symphonies of Beethoven or the plays of Euripides.
But what are its real world applications? Please note that I am not asking how to teach maths, although I cannot of course stop people who want to comment about that doing so, and although I am interested in that also. No, here, I am specifically asking: why learn maths?
Occasional Samizdatista Michael Jennings works as a Something in the City, analysing things like technological trends. Not at all coincidentally he has a PhD in maths. He is the ideal sort of person to answer such questions, and he and I have fixed to record a conversation about the usefulness of mathematics later this week. But I am sure that a Samizdata comment thread on this subject would help us both, if only by helping me to ask some slightly smarter questions.