Stupid is as stupid does, Prof Jansen

Brendan Seery

The professor’s recent comment that mathematical literacy is a ‘stupid subject’ is itself stupid.

Dear Professor Jonathan Jansen,

I am not qualified to sit in such a lofty academic ivory tower as you do. But, frankly, I think your recent comment that mathematical literacy is a “stupid subject” is itself stupid.

I am partisan: my wife teaches maths literacy. I have helped her add to her curriculum and even, on occasion, helped her teach a few classes (with visual and practical aids like an Aston Martin Vantage supercar).

Despite your Bachelor of Science and other degrees, as well as your experience overseas, you are sadly out of touch with reality. You say, with the self-assurance of someone who never struggles with figures or formulae, “every child can do maths”.
Trust me, Prof, not everyone can do maths. I say this with a little bit of arrogance, although I “only” got two distinctions in the old, British-assessed Associated Examination Board system at “Ordinary (O)” and then M (Matriculation)” level.

That was 40 years ago, yet even now I know my way around numbers and even bits of science better than a lot of people who have degrees from South African universities.

Some examples. I had to explain, once, to a Rhodes grad (who majored in maths) what “extrapolate” meant.

Then, some years ago, I put the reporters on my previous paper to the test by getting them to answer numeracy questions compiled by a Stellenbosch University journalism lecturer who was researching the ability of journalists to comprehend basic mathematical principles. I got 28 out of 33. My secretary, Jennifer Johnson, got 29. None of the reporters got more than 11.

Yes, I have heard the old saying that there are only three types of journalists: those who can count and those who can’t. A former editor once told me he couldn’t see the difference between percentage and percentage points. So every year his newspaper would botch its matric results reporting.

Surprisingly, I had the same problem a few months ago with Wits researchers (some with doctorates) who put out a press release that got those terms wrong. So even a degree is no guarantee of common sense. And that, in essence, is what maths literacy is all about.

Perhaps we wouldn’t have to have the subject if we gave our kids better grounding in the foundation phases, but that is not happening. And even if kids were better prepared at a younger age, maths literacy would still be important. A lot of people waste years trying to do hard maths and, in the process, fail to learn how to navigate their way through a world ruled by numbers.

Maths literacy teaches them about running cars (where I came in, using a test car to get the class attention before talking about fuel consumption, maintenance costs and hire purchase). It also makes them aware of compound interest and the role it plays in saving and in buying property via a mortgage bond.

The problem with academics such as yourself deciding where our education should go, Prof, is that you are not the target market. We should be encouraging the “dummies” as you insultingly call them, to consider practical careers and not be misled by the chimera of a university degree.

A plumber, carpenter or even a hairdresser needs maths literacy, not the stuff you scientists like to flaunt in front of the unworthy.


An Unqualified Dummy

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