Maths Attack

In early January, the UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out his grand plan for Britain. He made promises on inflation and the cost of living, the health service, Maths, migration, and innovation. This would have been a bland agenda, except that some journalists spotted an odd item on the list: the Prime Minister wants all pupils in England to study Maths until the age of eighteen. That’s 18, one-eight, a whole two years longer than teens are currently obliged to care about sums. And light years longer than most journalists did, and that did them no harm, thank you very much, never mind that light years are a unit of distance. The extension would be compulsory, like in the totalitarian regimes of China and the Soviet Union. And it’d turn children into mindless robots, brainwash teachers, sacrifice “basic skills such as speaking”, and generally bring about the end of our civilisation. Alright?

The shamelessly ideologizing responses to Sunak’s proposal suggest that commentators understood that it too was ideological, or, in the Prime Minister’s words, “personal”. Maybe getting personal is what the proposition requires: we know what a ‘man of letters’ looks like, what about one of numbers? How does a number cruncher imagine the future? What does he dream about? Can maths bots even dream? Sunak is probably too busy to model for an answer, so I’ll stand in. Yes, me, with my two As in Maths and Further Maths at A-Level, and a master’s degree in Physics. With my CV that lists junior summer coding camp and stints in financial services and ‘business’. Don’t worry, it won’t all be showing off because my resumé sadly lacks experience in leading a G7 economy.

But I haven’t even got to my art school diploma – the MFA is the new MBA – or my ongoing PhD research which calculates the value of political art and I’m already the STEM-refusenik’s worst nightmare. Not because endowing future generations with a numerate sensibility would be, as many commentators suggested of Sunak’s plan, a threat to the arts and humanities but because the very notion of it being a threat stands against the very sprit of creativity. I enlisted in the wordcels vs shape-rotators wars when I wrote about the kind of vicious competition that arises between the disciplines in the academy and industry diagnosed by C P Snow already in the 1950s. Here, I only want to give my fellow defenders of the arts and humanities a taste of their own medicine, if only to question their conviction that one kind of education and thinking produces better creativity and a better world than that of their opponents.

The story began in a literature class, me aged twelve. We read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, one of Romanticism’s most-celebrated texts. I must have been maladjusted to the dominant culture of the 1990s because Werther, the novella’s exalted, opinionated, self-assured, yet fragile and heartbroken protagonist became a role model for me as he had for earlier generations. Thankfully, I wasn’t devoted enough a reader to attempt a copycat suicide but Werther’s distinction between feeling and reason that, for him, was foundational to the questions of value stuck with me. His world was defined by heightened emotions, an acute sensibility for beauty, and a penchant for the kind of reified psychological suffering we now list in the DSM. Yet despite his doubtless artistic talents, Werther was neither wealthy, nor an aristocrat, and he had to fight his way through a reality built by the forces of law, commerce, and bourgeois ideals. And fight he did without a concession. In one scene, he condescendingly berated a customs officer’s attempt at poetry, causing a scandal that would see him banished from polite society. “Sir, one can either be a poet or an officer, never both!” Art would only exist if the artist escaped the drudgery of regulated thought. Mathematicians wouldn’t even dream of it.

For years, Goethe’s pronouncement haunted me, more than once making a scene at dinner. Doubly so because I was brought up in a home where the arts and sciences coincided happily in the figure of my mother who was at once a high-flying industrial chemist and a respected patron of the arts. Long before I was sent to boarding school where I picked my STEM-heavy specialisms, I was tiger-parented into reaching the finals of the European Physics Olympiad as much as I was into flicking through art history books. Computer club was on Tuesdays, guitar lessons on Wednesdays. My parents arranged for me to be excused from PE class so that I could take extra German on Thursdays. Fridays were reserved for the opera.

These are, of course, bourgeois luxuries which have been the subject of indulgence in my psychoanalysis, and which must not count for more than a singular data point in the design of an ideal curriculum. Suspend your wrath, reader, because the bummer was that I was barely adequate in the arts and humanities subjects. I could never remember a single date in History class, let alone care about who killed whom. I had no talent for making music. My father failed to instil in me a love for the Baroque despite taking me to more museums than I care for even now. I would say that school art classes were torture for me if only to parrot some of the many social media commentators who made a similar claim of Maths in disgust at Sunak’s proposals. By fourteen, my aspirations to be an all-rounded star student already failed and I had to seek comfort in extra-curricular Physics just as many of my arts colleagues found refuge in the after-school watercolour workshops.

The thing is, and this is a clue to how much of this whole story is verifiable, there is no scene in Werther in which an amateur poet gets humiliated because poetry wasn’t his nine-to-five. I read the novella again after thirty years recently. Werther never told a customs officer to suck it, nor did he cry for poetry for poets. There are many sources in Romanticism from which I may have got these ideas, but the likely truth is that I made this whole Werther thing up. For years, he lodged in my memory, from where he spurred me to try and prove him wrong. 

What a sorry excuse for a personality, you might say. I’ll leave the detailed account of my crisis and conversion for my now inevitable memoir, only noting here that I spent much of my twenties and early thirties trying to defend the arts from the kind of numerate philistine I feared I would become if I didn’t force myself to watch all of Godard in chronological order and listen to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder without giggling. Or run a visual art gallery for a decade, for that matter. But despite these experiences, by the time I reached my forties, I recognised that this was no use. “The problem with maths is that it churns out robotic data drones, unlike the humanities, which produce endlessly individual people who never have the same tastes and opinions,” as the writer Ben Sixmith recently put it. I used to have a chip on my shoulder. Now I have one on each.

Perhaps Sunak secretly longs for cultural capital, too. Or perhaps he reasons that a numerate Britain will be better prepared to compete in an increasingly numerically determined world. Perhaps he hopes, to misinterpret one educator’s criticism, that Maths would “improve our ability to cope with modern life” and that’s worth a shot in a culture as lost as ours. Or maybe he read Goethe more carefully than I did and understands that Werther’s problem was not that he was wrong about the preciousness of sensibility in a hostile world but that he was, quite simply, an unbearable buffoon.