There will never be a just social order until philosophers are kings, or kings become philosophers. To become a philosopher ones soul must be drawn from the changing, to the real. This is done through the study of mathematics.
On the subject of whether to publish a blog, I’ve moved back and forth. I’m still figuring things out, and feel like I don’t want to step into the public arena with half-baked ideas. On the other hand, through a series of fortunate circumstances and chance encounters, I’ve learned a great deal about mathematics, teaching, and learning, and perhaps some of that’s worth sharing. What finally sparked the desire to put something online, was a need to have a space somewhere to collect the odds and ends I encounter every week or so. In my training year, I wrote ‘reflective emails’ each week to a group of thirty people. I didn’t like writing into a ‘journal,’ but the idea of writing for an audience suited me, even if no-one actually read what I wrote; so there’s another reason in favour of a blog. If it sparks a little interesting debate along the way, all the better.
Since it was Plato’s words that served the concluding strike in my to-ing and fro-ing, I thought I should make my first post on that subject. What I liked about the quote, was that it provided yet another argument for the study of mathematics. Strange, though, that I should feel the need to gather up such arguments. Shouldn’t every person take it as a given that mathematics is worthy of study? Hmm…
In a later post I’ll probably compile the arguments I’ve heard or created to date. Here’s my favourite: ‘to get a job.’ What I love about it, is its simple functionality; so easy to say, so easy to understand. Even if you don’t plan on becoming a rocket scientist, damnit, you probably need at least a C in maths to do… anything!
Surprisingly though, here’s what happens a few years after we inform young minds of the need to study mathematics, to get a job:
Suli Breaks will not let exam results decide his fate
Ouch! This young man is clearly angry; frustrated. A talented poet, his words probably echo the feelings of a generation or two. I suspect his frustration with the school system is well founded, and I often share it. There are a few key lines worth picking out:
- “Why does he have to study subjects he will never ever use in his life?”
- “…and then lie. ‘You know to get a good job you need a good degree.'”
- “She will lie, simply because she does not know any better herself.”
- “Although her whole adult life, she has never used or applied Pythagoras’ theorem…”
What struck me in this poem was Suli Breaks’ ability to spot what he calls ‘the lie.’ There’s a sense that none of us, pupils, parents, teachers, really know why certain school subjects are worth studying. There’s a sense that we suspect they’re important, but since the vast majority of what we learn, we never directly apply… we can’t quite articulate *why* they are important. So, we reach for something simple, clean cut; we say that they’re important because they help us to get jobs. Of course, they only really help us to get jobs not as a result of what we have learned, but as a result of the lettered grade on our certificate.
We must all study hard to get a job, but the job is a lie
This impotence isn’t true of every individual teacher, of course. There are many who deftly inspire pupils with a sense of purpose in studying their subject; but there is no sense of ‘collective understanding’ of why we study, beyond ‘to get a job.’ When I turned up to ITT, we were one time asked to come up with a few responses to this question ourselves; we weren’t handed a list of good reasons for studying mathematics. I would have quite liked to see that list, I would like to know that every other maths teacher in the country had seen and memorised verbatim that list, and that collectively we all shared the same understanding of why our subject was worthy of study.
While I think Suli Breaks makes many errors in his outpouring of emotion, like his own parent character, I suspect he does so because he knows no better, and in creating this poem no doubt he feels he is rebelling against ‘the lie.’ I doubt it’s his fault; I imagine he was told relentlessly that he must study hard, to get a job. From his own website then, he talks about how he studied hard, and as reward received ‘few more job prospects than when he started.’
Another clear, running theme in those lines picked out above is that of ‘utility,’ the notion that we should only study or learn about something as a means to an end, with the later intention of directly ‘using’ what was learnt, in some clear, obvious and direct application.
If job prospects were the only reason to study he was ever provided, who can blame him for his vitriol? Who can blame him for being no better at articulating why we should study the subject disciplines we prescribe at school? Would Suli Breaks be the inspiring poet he is today without his formal education? Could he write poetry about Pythagoras’ theorem and pathetic fallacy if he’d never once learnt of them in school? Just how much of what he learnt in those years is he drawing upon in his art, without even realising it?
I really have one point to make in this post: Please, let’s stop telling young people that they must study, to get good grades, to get a job.
Each subject is a part of the school curriculum, usually, for more than one reason. None of them have ever been, nor should be ‘to get a job.’ The alternatives may be trickier to communicate, and more challenging to understand, but they’re worth it, and they can never be mistaken for a lie.
For now, here’s one more to add to the list of reasons for the study of mathematics: “To draw ones soul from the changing, to the real.”