Wednesday, 5 June 2013

There is a retired Reader in

Mathematics who lives just a short distance away from us. For some years we were on a "nodding" sort of acquaintance - the sort of acknowledgement you give someone if you see them frequently enough. 
Eventually we met properly at a funeral. Since then we have had the occasional conversation and sometimes said something to one another about the teaching of maths.
Maths was not my favourite subject at school. I could do it but I did not find it fascinating in the way I found English or History fascinating. I managed to do the essential Basic Statistics at university but I was also fortunate enough to work in a research unit which employed a full time statistician. I could consult him when I had a problem. What he taught me and what the retired Reader has confirmed is that statistics are to be treated with caution, extreme caution.
Today there is yet another call in the two papers we get for Maths to be made compulsory until the end of school. We are, it is stated, in danger of falling behind the US, Asia and Western Europe. That is a fairly large slice of the world. 
Those calling for Maths to be made compulsory also want to see at least one science subject made compulsory. (Fine, I did two - and they were not exciting.) 
It all sounds very reasonable. I would even agree that Maths and Science are a very important, even vital, part of education. However, there is something that puzzles me. This is not the first time such things have been said. There have also been regular demands for all Australian students to be compelled to learn an Asian language. Nowhere has there been any serious demand for schools to teach what are sometimes called "Arts" and "Classics". If anything school students are actually discouraged from doing English Literature, History, Latin, Ancient Greek etc. The "best and brightest" students are expected to head into science - whether they have an interest in it or not. They are told that "an arts degree won't lead to a job". There is some truth in that statement. 
Arts faculties at universities are also even more underfunded than science faculties. They are considered "less important". They do not bring in those all important research funds. 
Yesterday I read a piece in the Guardian. In it the outgoing Children's Laureate, Julia Donaldson, criticised the media for their lack of interest in and support for children's literature. It was a fair criticism too. Children's books account for about a quarter of all book sales but get nothing like that amount of attention. Not nearly enough is being done to tell people that children's literature is important...and that good literature for children is also something for adults.
Somewhere along the line we are missing something important. Science needs the arts. Scientists need to have language skills. They need imagination so they can go on asking, "Why?" and "What if?" and "How?" It is the sort of imagination which can only come with reading books, good books. No amount of films, games, posters and the like can substitute for a good book where the reader uses his or her imagination to gather in the words which have been written and make them their own.
Please, can we hear it for reading as well as maths and science?


Anonymous said...

And civics so people learn the importance of good citizenship. And history taught so we know why not just who and when.
And art and music so we learn how to appreciate life and live it with joy.

Holly said...

The interesting thing - if your group wants to do maths the same way as they do in Europe - is that everyone does take and is examined in math all the way through Gymnasium. But it is the same class for everyone. The can't adds are in with the number theorists. It hurts both since those who don't like math are devastated by the speed and difficulty of the class and those who are engineering and science minded are held back by the humanities types.
OTOH - everyone has to take a couple of sciences. And Geography and history and art and music (yes, art and music for 1/2 year each and every year).

Toss in the requirement for mandatory second & third languages and the only thing left outside of school is the ballroom dancing class.

Anonymous said...

We need schools to turn out people who can read, write and add up ... then we could move onto further education of our choice. But first we need the basics!