Adding up a culture change

Features editor

There’s a lot of maths around at the moment. On television, Marcus du Sautoy, distinguished professor of mathematics at Oxford University, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a man who, fortunately, doesn’t take himself too seriously, is clambering around the Giant’s Causeway amid portentous music and dramatic post-production effects to explain how mathematics underpins nature. In the financial markets, analysts are turning to chaos theories of maths to describe the spiralling and seemingly senseless rise and fall of share prices.

And in the newspapers this week — since somewhat overshadowed — a woman best known for picking letters and numbers off a board and doing sums on an afternoon gameshow has advised the government that maths education needs to be compulsory to age 18. Maybe Carol Voderman was heading up the review of maths education because Prof du Sautoy was too busy looking at beehives and bubbles, but nonetheless her report’s recommendations deserve some study.

Engineering is, of course, entirely dependent on mathematics; many an undergraduate has stumbled from their first term shellshocked at the sheer volume of maths lectures they were expected to attend, and the exoticism of some of the mathematics which underpins technology. And it’s certainly true that innumeracy is peculiarly lacking in the stigma of illiteracy — many people declare almost proudly that they know nothing about maths.

Ms Vorderman (an engineering graduate herself) has suggested that maths GCSEs should be split into two courses, one dealing with arithmetic and the other with the more abstract algebra which so many people struggle with. There’s no point, she argues, in confusing people with quadratics and cosines when what they really need is to be able to work out fractions and percentages. And this is undoubtedly a good idea, although yet another set of exams at 16 might be daunting for students (and, for that matter, teachers).

Whether compulsory maths is a good idea for anyone studying until 18 is another matter. Would it help make an appreciation of maths part of the culture in a way that it currently isn’t, as Prof du Sautoy would clearly like to see? It’s hard to say. Speaking for myself, as an A-level student studying science and maths subjects, I was forced to sit through ‘Special English’ classes because it was thought that science students were somehow lacking in a desire or ability to read or write. I’m still somewhat bitter about that. Might arts students feel the same way about ‘Special Maths’? Or would they become converts to the beauty of numbers and and the elegance of formulae?

Have a look over the history of maths and one thing becomes clear. Hardcore mathematicians — the geniuses who have advanced the subject over the years — are often strange people. Maybe you have to have a brain that’s wired slightly differently from the average to truly appreciate the highest levels of maths, where imaginary numbers dance and the digits of Pi spin off into eternity. But there’s no doubt that there is a need for a shake-up, in both culture and education. Maybe this is the start of a countdown to a new way of doing things.