What is maths for?

Some of you will have been following the controversy about Michael Gove’s (the education secretary) ideas about the curriculum for primary and secondary education. Some of this has to do with how maths is taught and what it’s for.

There appear to be two views about education: one that it is designed to equip people to operate in the world. So you teach people how to hew wood and draw water, so they will be efficient and effective wood-hewers and water-drawers and increase the country’s GNP and so on; the other that it teaches people to think, so they suggest maybe we could have an aqueduct.

And maths can be seen as a set of tools in your toolbox, to tell you how much wood to hew and water to draw, or even how to set up the aqueduct at the correct angle and flow rate. Or it can be seen as a philosophy, a way of thinking about the world. Or even an art form, an occupation that is a human pleasure and delight and not necessarily for anything.

One of the thing that concerns me about interface design is that sometimes, it is a series of incremental improvements to make things easier, rather than a question as to whether the thing that is being done is worth doing at all. Yes, I know, that it is seen as a luxury. firstly, there are the bills to pay and the food to cook (and the wood to hew and the water to draw). But occasionally, if you have the time, ask yourself if there is something of delight in what you are doing. If so, it is probably worth it.

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