Maths homework

Astonishingly, I used to be quite good at Maths. When I was 12, this was thought to be my strong suit, rather than English. I didn’t hit the wall until calculus came along, and, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get trigonometry, logarithms (remember those books filled with figures? Enough to give anyone a nightmare), sines, cosines, and tangents (although I am quite good at other kinds of tangent, and my conversation in real as well as virtual life is apt to stop at a junction and take a short-cut over a stile, round a field and end up going back where it was coming from). I can’t help my nephew with his Maths homework at all. I don’t understand what he’s talking about.

I seem to be from the year when there was an overlap between Old Maths and New Maths (Tom Lehrer, himself a mathematician, satirised this in a song called ‘New Math’, Americans mysteriously dropping that ‘s’, in which he claimed that New Math was about explaining how you got to the solution – even if it was wrong. It must be the only song to do a sum in base 8). So while we were struggling on with the usual subtraction, addition, multiplication and division (I can still do long division), we were also road-testing the Venn diagram, which was the wizziest thing to come out of the Nuffield research in the 1960s.

At some point, and I don’t know how I’m going to explain this clearly, the way in which a number was ‘carried’ underwent an alteration. If I add 154 and 49, I go to the right-hand column (you following) and get 13, and then take the one and put it at the bottom of the middle column, add 1, 5 and 4, and, and get 10, and take the one across to the bottom of the left-hand column, where it gratefully and gracefully melds and merges with the other 1 there, and get to 203 (excuse me while I check that). But if you watch children educated later than the late 1960s, they seem to be carrying the number across in an altogether different way. It is impossible to follow.

I can’t do quadratic equations any more, largely because I have no idea whatsoever what they are. But I can do fractions (decimals were also part of New Maths), and I do them all the time while driving, as I also do percentages. It is one of my major ways of concentrating while I am driving. I don’t mean that I pass the time doing abstract sums – I do things like working out my average speed, and what proportion of the journey I have left to complete. I thought I was the only person to do this until I admitted it to a couple of friends. It turns out that they do it, too (it may be a gender thing – the calculating drivers, as it were, were male).

But I dread the maths homework questions. Much is made of the functional innumeracy of the work-force, as against the supposedly brilliant mathematical capabilities of my generation. It is true that the calculator has shut down some of the energy that used to go into mental arithmetic (once a specialist subject on ‘Double Your Money’ – I remember someone getting the £1000 question wrong when asked to a crazy sum in that strange, glass-fronted box the contestants were placed in), but I am not 100% sure (maybe 87%) that the nation has been damaged. I would be prepared to bet that the introduction of tills in shops, whenever it happened, led to some similar sort of outcry.

We do like a good moan about the past.


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