Thursday, August 14, 2008

Idiot of the week

The mind boggles. Are literature and long-dead languages really the best grounding for banking and accountancy? According to Simon Jenkins they are:

In the two decades during which British pupils have fled from maths towards
social science and the humanities, the economy has boomed. It has done so on the
strength of finance... on service activities that have little mathematical
content.

Reading on, however, I suspect he's simply confused about the difference between 'pure maths' and 'maths'. He writes:

I studied advanced maths to 16. I loved wandering in its virtual world of
trigonometry and logarithms, primes and surds. I breakfasted on quadratic
equations, lunched on differential calculus and strolled, arm in arm, with
Ronald Searle's square on the hypotenuse.
Quadratic equations are 'pure mathematics' and appear on the average GCSE and AS-level syllabus. However, GCSE and AS-level mathematics also includes statistics, probability and plain old adding up - all things that Mr Jenkins agrees that we need (or I think he does):
The two best books on this topic are Innumeracy, by the American John Allen
Paulos, and A Mathematician's Apology, by former Cambridge professor GH Hardy.
The first describes all the maths a person needs to know, mostly simple concepts
applied to daily life, to proportion, risk and probability. Paulos makes the
point that a nation may be expert at algebra yet have no sense of statistical
probability, to the profit of its insurance industry and the detriment of its
public life.
Since statistics, probability, etc. aren't currently covered in any other school subject, our society needs mathematics. Mr Jenkins is throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. Reform, yes, wholesale dismissal, no.

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