Please don’t start this again. Not the maths education debate. Give us something less exhausting. What about Irish and how “it’s about the way it’s taught”? That never gets anybody riled up.
Our neighbours across the Irish Sea are to blame for this week’s engagement. Yes, it would be better to ignore them, but Rishi Sunak’s return to the issue reveals a scab that needs to be picked (again). Back in January, the UK prime minister argued – surely, not a deranged suggestion – that all British students should study maths up to the age of 18.
The response could hardly have been more extreme if he had proposed the reintroduction of juvenile chimney sweeps. The actor Simon Pegg was incandescent with fury. “What a pr**k!” he spat in an impromptu video.
“What about arts and humanities and fostering this country’s amazing reputation for creativity?” We’ll come back to that supposedly rhetorical question in a moment. It is the next paragraph in the Peggisberg Address that most concerns us.
Being crap at sums separates you from the – not my cliché – greasy-haired nerds in duffel jackets at the other end of the university. You know?
“I hated maths. I dropped maths as soon as I could,” he continues from the front seat of his car. “Rishi Sunak wants a f**cking drone army of data-entering robots!” My better instincts dragged me back from the fight.
“Leave it alone. It’s not worth it,” they said, before figuratively bundling me into a cab and sending me home to sleep it off.
Mr Sunak wouldn’t let it go. He was back in there like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas after being told to go get his shine-box. Last week, Sunak argued that an “anti-maths mindset” was dragging down the UK economy. There was much to gripe about in his statement, but one line unquestionably rang true.
“I won’t sit back and allow this cultural sense that it’s okay to be bad at maths,” he said. It isn’t often I support the leader of the Conservative Party over a core actor from Shaun of the Dead. (It isn’t often such a choice must be made.) But Sunak is right to point up the perception it is “okay to be bad at maths”.
And the Irish are just as guilty. Writing in this newspaper nine years ago, Louise Holden engaged with our own “cultural bias against maths”. Prof Luke Drury from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies was supportive of the thesis.
“It’s true that the Irish don’t perceive themselves as a mathematical people,” he told Holden. “We do seem to suffer from a cultural bias; we see ourselves as writers and poets.”
It is, if anything, an understatement to argue folk think it “okay” to be bad at mathematics. Over in this corner of Europe, many are positively proud to stink at the subject. They are prone to say “Oh, I could never make sense of algebra” with a smug satisfaction they wouldn’t bring to an ignorance of history or literature.
Mathematics, in particular, is seen as a tool that ceases to have worth if it cannot be applied to daily life
You never hear the same people boast they couldn’t get through Jane Austen because of all the long words. I can’t speak for Simon Pegg, but few actors would snap “I hate poetry!” with the relish he brings to “I hated maths!”
Being crap at sums separates you from the – not my cliche – greasy-haired nerds in duffel jackets at the other end of the university. You know?
The people set to enlist in “a f**king drone army of data-entering robots”. Ha, ha! Sod those philistines. We’re happy reading verse to one another in wooded glades while failing to grasp the intricacies of contour integration. Of course I can’t split the restaurant bill without a calculator. What sort of horny-handed peasant do you take me for?
The strand that most riles can be seen waxing in Simon Pegg’s “What about ... fostering this country’s amazing reputation for creativity?” A large percentage of the Irish and British population don’t recognise the beauty in science or the creativity required to expand its reach.
Mathematics, in particular, is seen as a tool that ceases to have worth if it cannot be applied to daily life. “I have never needed it apart from the skill set I acquired at 12,” Pegg spits from his car. Have you “needed” the Byron or the Yeats you studied in English? Have you “needed” to know where Napoleon died or who painted Guernica?
The notion mathematics might have value in itself is so bizarre it is never even considered. Enemies of the subject might reasonably point out that Sunak isn’t so much making that argument either. It’s all about the economy and the jobs market.
It’s all about keeping up with the Germans. Maybe, if the creative case was better made there wouldn’t be so many people bragging at dinner parties about never getting to grips with long division.
Please don’t make me have this conversation again.