The Future is going to involve a lot of maths

I’ll begin by quoting myself. If a national crisis/apocalypse occurs, the Prime Minister is not going to pick up the phone and call a dancer or a poet; he’s going to call someone who is damn good at maths. Why a maths person? Maths people are special: they are rational, logical, calm, direct, love a quandary and do not clutter their brains with bandwidth-wasting concerns about fashion, frouff* or celebrity gossip. When I say ‘Maths people’, I include all the coders, hackers, number-crunchers, quants, techies, CFOs, scientists, engineers, actually I don’t know how to end this list so you’ll just have to get the general drift of the people-Venn I’m trying to construct here. This blog post is about how I think maths people need to pipe up and promote their subject’s central importance in every child’s education not least because maths and maths people will probably save the world one day. It’s also a post that is meant to be tongue-in-cheek and quite light-hearted, just in case you didn’t twig that.

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Just another day at the office

So, the first thing I read this morning on edu-media was another ‘Children aren’t studying enough art‘ type commentary. To be fair, I share similar concerns, but I don’t agree that there needs to be some kind of battle – all school leaders and educators want the children in their care to receive a well-balanced education and no parent is going to send their child to a secondary or a primary school that doesn’t do or promote music, sport, dance or drama. Further, the Ebacc covers 7-8 subjects which leaves space for another couple of subjects at least. However, what I am mostly concerned about in this case is the discourse that seems to imply that ‘The Future’ is going to be a place where ‘creative types’ will solve all the problems and in contrast all the ‘academic thinkers and number crunchers’ will be rendered redundant and generally looking a bit sheepish. Hey, I can play a mean violin, but even I know that being able to unleash an Irish Jig or The Four Seasons is not going to save the day and if push comes to shove in the most apocalyptic of situations my friends, those violin strings will be used for other purposes and those purposes will involves some serious maths. Also, just because someone can be creative with a minor pentatonic scale, doesn’t mean they can be creative with everything else in the universe like chemical engineering and whatnot.

Even if the apocalypse doesn’t occur and all the violins are safe (for now; some Vegan, sandal-wearing lefty-communist future PM may yet ban them for offending a minority group or something), maths people are still going to be really important. Why? Because the sorts of problems that are going to occur (or are already occurring) will need some serious maths, techie-wizardry or logic to solve them:

  • Demographics: too many old, fat and sick people and not enough young, lithe and healthy people to support them**.
  • Finance: NHS alone could bankrupt the country, never mind pensions etc (see above bullet point)
  • Infrastructure: roads are clogged, the trains are late and too expensive
  • Buildings: not enough of them and many of them are falling down or too inflammable/explosive
  • People: many adults still cannot read, write or add up. People still think that winning X-Factor is a genuine career aspiration
  • Energy: not enough of it to go round
  • Water: not always in the right place at the right time
  • Weather: extreme (and that’s putting it mildly)

No offence, but I don’t see how crochet or tap-dance could help with any of the above situations other than take people’s minds of it for a while.

I absolutely believe that being good at maths is something that most if not all students need to be and this is not just because the future involves lots of maths, but because mathematics is a discipline that develops certain character traits that future generations are definitely going to need when the economic or ecological shit hits the fan.

Who’s with me?

*This is a new word that I and my partner have created. It’s a noun and it encompasses all pointless and pointlessly frilly things like curtain pelmets, toilet dolls, commemorative crockery and wall-mounted, talking fish. Please feel free to adopt this word into your everyday vernacular.

**Solution: robots, obviously – we can’t just import young, lithe and healthy people because that would leave their home countries without enough young, lithe and healthy people!

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4 thoughts on “The Future is going to involve a lot of maths

  1. Ahh–you mention ‘the arts’–a perfect opening for one of my pet rants. I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that virtually all primary school teachers and mothers (present company excepted) are all just as obsessed with Creativity–with a capital ‘C–as Sir Ken Robinson. Simply turn kids loose with a pencil, and you’re setting them on the road to become the next Shakespeare, Dickens or at a pinch, Virginia Woolf. Sit them in front of a rich array of finger paints, and voila–you will unleash their potential to become the next Titian or van Gogh. The last thing these people want to do is cramp kids’ native genius by teaching them how to spell or how to use a paintbrush. I think most fathers breath a sigh of relief when their kids are old enough to be embarassed by their juvenalia, and their mothers have to take it off the walls.

    As for maths, I agree that we do our children an immense injustice by leaving them all but innumerate. The world is full of sharks who take advantage, and this affects us all. Employers tend to favour those with STEM skills not so much because they are needed in the workplace, but because they are a marker for intelligence and dilligence. The skills themselves are another matter. The salaries for engineers are dismal–a structural engineer I know was on £25K after 6 years, and decided to retrain as a maths teacher. He’s now on £35K, with bright propects.

    Pure maths is another matter. This is such a rarified realm that us mere mortals can’t even begin to comprehend what they do, at least in terms of maths. The ones I know are also mad as hatters, and I wouldn’t turn to them for advice on how to tie my shoes. Somehow I doubt that any of them will be of a lot of use in solving society’s problems.

    The only genius I know is a physicist who was doing original research in particle physics as an undergraduate, and his professors told him it would be a waste of his time doing any postgraduate degrees. Needless to say, quantuum physics is largely pure maths applied to matter. He was one of the pioneers in laser technology, yet he’s still far from wealthy. Technological advance depends largely upon a tiny number of people who will succeed almost irrespective of how good their schools were. This said, I think we should all study maths as far as we are able, if for no other reason that we don’t feel strangers in the world we live in.

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  2. I prefer to think that in the apocalypse, the prime-minister will be calling on anyone who can offer protection against being slaughtered for food. That’s not going to be the mathematicians, I don’t think. (I’m not entirely joking). But maths is hardly being neglected is it? We may need a few mathematicians to do some calculations, but in all seriousness, what we always need are people who can solve problems. I don’t mean to bang any kind of prog drum here – I’m talking about the seeming demise of any kind of practical skill which involves knowing how things work. We haven’t taught anything in primary school for decades which even comes close and a brief look at some notorious ‘solutions’ in the news recently indicates how far we’ve come away from being the nation with the reputation for the most ingenious and effective ways of doing things.

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    • Other than making posters, I can’t think of any practical skill that’s ever been taught in primary school. The ‘Craft’ was dropped out of CDT because of Health and Safety, and it sure as hell ain’t coming back. In any case, I don’t think schools can do much to halt the decline of manual skills–working with your hands just isn’t cool these days. Never mind that my son, who’s a self-employed roofer, makes a lot more than all of his friends who work in offices.

      Mind, it doesn’t help when schools exhort their kids to ‘Aim high–don’t settle for a dead-end job”. So we have to import Poles and Albanians to do the jobs that are beneath our children’s dignity. That’s why I think Quirky has a point about kids working hard–once you experience the rewards of hard work, it becomes addictive.

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