Value is not a commodity: Math test analysis proves nothing


Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood on December 11, 2013

The national media are all abuzz right now over results reported by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. It seems that achievement in mathematics among 15 year olds in Canada has slipped from seventh place in 2006 to 13th place this year in a sampling of 65 countries.
John Manley, former Liberal deputy prime minister and now CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, has called these results “a national emergency.”

Setting aside any qualms we may have about the methodology of the survey and accepting the numbers as they are, it is fascinating to look at the meanings that have been drawn from them.

First, let’s hear from Mr. Manley himself: “We need skills, we need knowledge-workers to really improve our prosperity and build our society . . . Having the skills becomes a very important element to attracting investment and creating jobs.”

And here, as reported by the Globe & Mail, is a rough and ready summary of what the testers themselves feel underlies the slip in Canadian scores:

“Critics contend that the math curriculum, ushered in over the past decade, is to blame for lower scores because it places more emphasis on real-world concepts rather than abstract thinking and practice. The OECD report noted that the top performers had more exposure to formal mathematics than word problems.”

How do we reconcile these two statements? Too much applied math and not enough pure math makes Johnny a dull boy, according to one lot, while if we listen to the other, we need more skill in applied math to keep our economy humming.

What interests me here is not so much the specific issue of mathematics education itself, as how the logic of Mr. Manley’s statement typifies so much about public policy in our country as a whole. We are encouraged on every side to assume that the value of any activity or pursuit, or indeed of any thought, must derive from its economic usefulness.

Cultural activities are valuable, we are told, because they improve creativity that can be harnessed to our country’s competitive advantage in business and industry.

Science is valuable because it leads to marketable innovations.

Wilderness has value because it conceals potentially exploitable resources, and because in the meanwhile it provides recreational opportunities to take our minds off the non-natural lives we live in the pursuit of prosperity.

Any idea that the point of mathematics is its internal integrity as a symbolic system  constructed by the mind for the purposes of beauty as much as usefulness, or that the point of music is its formal self-sufficiency as much as its uses for entertainment, or that wilderness, god help us, needs no justification except its simple existence, is a hard sell in a world dominated by economics. So much so, evidently, that when a study such as this one from the OECD says specifically that we need more abstract mathematics, we immediately mishear it and start beating our breasts about where we’ve might have gone wrong in our teaching of applied math and how we might improve that to better serve the needs of business and industry.

You’d think in the arts at least the value of art on its own terms might be easier to assert, but there too the thrust has been to convince governments of the economic benefits of the arts sector: how many jobs are created, how much economic value is returned to society, and how much the arts make Canadians happier and more productive citizens.

But value is not a commodity. A pianist who plays a Beethoven sonata beautifully, a student who solves a quadratic equation or delves into the elegance of a geometric proof, a watershed that’s left just to be itself with its intricate interconnections of living organisms — these all contribute to the meaning and beauty and order of the world far more importantly than evanescent concepts like prosperity or the sad barrenness of mere utility.

So by all means let’s have more abstract mathematics, but for the sake of mathematics itself, not for the sake of the economy.

The writer is an author and executive director of ArtSpring.