Is Maths the new Latin? (What should we teach, Part i)

Maths may not be as important as we think.

Consider the following claims that were made for the study of Latin when I was at school (yes, as recently as that!):

  • ‘It’s an essential part of a proper education.’
  • ‘It’s a requirement for university entry.’
  • ‘It’s a difficult subject, and is a good indicator of overall student ability’.
  • ‘It’s the perfect tool for learning logic thought and intellectual rigour.’
  • ‘Even though it is of no use in everyday life, it forms the basis of all the Romance languages, and so lays the necessary foundations for other studies’.

However, coincident with (and possibly caused by) the rise of comprehensive schools, these ‘truths’ were questioned and the Roman emperor was seen to be without a toga.  The study of Latin then underwent a precipitous decline.  Though still a viable subject studied for its inherent interest by those with an affinity for it, few would now promote making Latin compulsory for all students.

Now consider the position of Maths in our curriculum.  A 2008 report for the British government, ‘The Value of Maths’, proclaimed that Maths ‘develops the fundamental skills of logical and critical reasoning, training the mind to be highly analytical and to deal with complex problems. It provides the basic language, structures and theories for understanding the world around us.’ These are precisely the claims that were made for Latin when ‘Greats’ (i.e. Classical Languages and Ancient History) was the most prestigious (and lucrative) degree at Oxford, supposedly equipping a steady supply of colonial masters with the structures and theories for not only understanding the world around them, but for ruling it!

Each of the claims made for Latin is now made about Maths, except that instead of being ‘the basis of all the Romance languages’ it is ‘the basis of all of the sciences’.  Indeed, Maths is held in such esteem that it is largely on the basis of Maths scores in international tests that national school systems are judged.  Of course, only a hopeless cynic (such as me) would suggest that this is because Maths tests are relatively easy to ‘standardise’ across languages and cultures, simply because they do not measure anything that requires the complex judgements that shape, and depend upon, our social structures.

Elementary Maths does have a key role in early education.  In recent years the teaching of Maths in Primary schools has been transformed for the better by our increased understanding of how children learn.  An increased use of manipulative equipment, the recognition of different learning styles, and an emphasis on providing children with the experience of success and satisfaction rather than failure and stress has been shown to result in a better grasp of the underlying concepts of number and space.  Nevertheless, even where such strategies are successfully implemented the take up of Maths at the secondary level has continued to decline, and the majority of students drop it when they can.  Furthermore, many of those who do choose to continue with Maths do so only as a required qualification, rather than  because the subject itself is attractive. Even where Maths is compulsory, the most popular choices tend to be the most basic options.  Could this possibly indicate that, beyond numeracy skills and spatial awareness, more advanced mathematical concepts have little natural relevance for most people?  When did you last solve a quadratic equation or perform vector addition?

If success in international Maths tests really measures something more meaningful than how closely each educational system correlates with the tests, why is there no correlation between the ranking of the participating countries and the economic and social health of those countries?  Finland, the current international poster child for its performance on the tests, faces criticism at home for large classes, short hours, and a failure to respond to the socialisation and language needs of an increasingly multi-ethnic population.  Hungary, which consistently ranks at or near the top, is hardly a beacon of economic dynamism or social stability, and Singapore (another shining example of high Maths scores) is rarely suggested as a model of democracy and human rights.

Of course Maths should be taught schools, and taught well, but it should not be regarded as more important than other areas of learning, and the goal must be to enable students to achieve their potential and become balanced, fulfilled individuals.

In the Middle Ages the study of Latin met a very practical need by providing the means of communication for scholars throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire, i.e. most of Europe and beyond.  Its status as the mark of an educated person became so entrenched, however, that it outlived its actual usefulness.  Are we now witnessing the same phenomenon in the case of Maths?  In an age when the sum total of human knowledge has become accessible on a mobile telephone, and when there is likely to be an ‘app’ available to carry out any desired manipulation of that knowledge, is it really wise to seek to restore an earlier educational emphasis on academic Maths, rather than questioning how to equip the next generation in terms of values and judgement, rather than with skills that most will never have a use for?

(By the way, in case anyone is wondering, I was a Maths teacher.)