There was an article in last Friday’s Guardian by Simon Jenkins about the subject of mathematics education. It came to the conclusion that maths isn’t necessary to know in order for someone to be able to lead a productive life. He’s right, but not in the way he thinks.

The following issue contained lots of (semi) angry rebuttals from mathematicians. Again, in their own ways they were right, but I think they miss the point.

The main points that Jenkins makes are that mathematics has no economic value, and that it is some form of traditionalism, coupled with underhanded lobbying, that gives maths its prominent place in the curriculum. The rebuttals focus on refuting these specific points, by, for instance, pointing out that maths graduates go into finance, or questioning the evil conspiracy Jenkins conjured up. Both sides assume that mathematics is useful, or is geared towards a useful aim. It might be, as a side effect, but that’s not why mathematicians do it (to paraphrase Feynman). The point is that it is fun, although you probably wouldn’t get that from a maths lesson.

That mathematics isn’t necessary to lead a normal life is adequately demonstrated by the fact that nobody is taught mathematics in school. Instead, they are taught things like algebra, arithmetic, calculus, geometry and so on. These things are to maths as spelling is to poetry. Mathematics is spotting patterns, solving puzzles, and playing around with entirely imaginary constructs in a logical manner. It is a fundamentally creative endeavour. This is the sort of thing that many people profoundly enjoy doing (Sudoku is rather popular, I hear), but without realising that they’re doing maths.

Oh, of course it’s not investigating the Riemann Hypothesis or anything Hard and Professional like that, but people enjoy painting without expecting to come up with a Sistine Chapel ceiling, or what have you. The difference is that art lessons actually involve painting, so you can get a feel for whether or not you enjoy it, while maths lessons, for most people, teach them nothing other than that they hated maths lessons.

This is mostly cribbed from here, but that’s only because this Lockhart chap so successfully encapsulated what I have intuited for years, but was unable to express. Read it.