As a mathematician, I’m tempted to dismiss Andreas Schleicher’s latest suggestion that the arts will become more important than maths. But I can’t shake the feeling that he might be on to something.
The brand of school maths that most people have experienced has, as Schleicher points out, reached its expiry date. School maths has an unhealthy fixation with procedural knowledge; the curriculum is designed as if students will one day be called upon to flex their calculational muscles. The era of human computers, sadly, has passed, and Schleicher is right to suggest that the arbitrary skills promoted by school maths are also the most archaic.
Where Schleicher gets it wrong is in pitting mathematics and the arts against one another. This separation is one of the oldest, and certainly the falsest, dichotomies in education. It is at odds with how mathematicians themselves view the subject.
The ‘supreme beauty’ of maths
Bertrand Russell once spoke of how “mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere…sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.”
GH Hardy, despite being a hardened purist who advocated fiercely for rigour and abstraction, ultimately declared that: “I am interested in mathematics only as a creative art.”
If mathematics is an art form, then what does that make mathematicians? To Hardy, they are “makers of patterns”. The late Maryam Mirzakhani, the only female recipient of the Fields Medal (the highest accolade in mathematics), was often mistaken by her daughter for an artist.
‘Desecration’ of the subject
To mathematicians, school maths is something of a desecration of their subject. There’s no doubt that school maths has crowded out more conventional arts subjects. But it has also concealed the true nature of mathematics. Paul Lockhart famously lamented that: “No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial.”
Even where calculation has its place, the mathematician seeks rich representations that illuminate the procedures they call upon. Think times tables are just a matter of memorising number facts? Think again.
To view mathematics as an art is not mere romantic sentiment. Mathematics has always been rooted in the social and emotional skills that Schleicher claims are highly sought after. The kind of mathematics that our students need, that our world is increasingly dependent on, is much more aligned to its artistic tenets. Schleicher speaks of skills like curiosity, persistence and resilience, as if they are divorced from mathematics when, in fact, these are the very traits that mathematicians through the ages have brought to bear on their problems.
As with any art, there is a subjective element to deciding exactly what should go into a maths curriculum, or how to assess these broader skills. But that is no excuse for persisting with an outdated brand of the subject that brings joy to so few, and value to fewer still.
State of flux
Mathematics has always been in a state of flux. The history of mathematics is entwined with the history of technology. Humans have precedent for updating their ways of doing mathematics based on the tools available to them. With the technologies now available at our fingertips, we can put calculation in its rightful place as the footnote to mathematical thinking proper. As mathematician Keith Devlin says, calculation is simply the price we once paid to do mathematics. When maths anxiety has so many in its grip, and when so many others show such indifference to a subject that promises immense power and beauty, that price is surely too high.
Mathematics will never be replaced by the arts. Mathematics is an art, and it’s time we embraced it as one.
Dr Junaid Mubeen is a mathematician and a Countdown champion. He is also director of education at Whizz Education
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