Columnist Lucy Kellaway has a story in today’s Financial Times about the sad lack of math skills in Britain. She pointed to an awkward and uncomfortable moment last week when the UK’s shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, was unable to do simple division on a live radio program:
Kellaway says this is evidence of something troubling: that it’s perfectly possible to be a member of the British ruling class and be astonishing rubbish at numbers.
I read the article with a tinge of embarrassment, but also relief. Embarrassment because my atrocious math skills could have been betrayed in just the same way, and relief because it’s good to know I’m not alone. In fact, Kellaway notes:
Kellaway very easily could’ve been talking to me. I’ve never had an interest in – or been good at – math, but somehow I’ve ended up working for a financial services company. I’ve miraculously been able to get by without it (…so far).
This issue reminds me of a discussion from a few years ago at a World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin, China. One of the exercises was to discuss the long-term impact of the internet; specifically what it will mean to have all of human knowledge available at the click of mouse. One delegate said the result will be a kind of “hive mind”, whereby people can outsource their knowledge to the internet, where it can be accessed on demand. If getting information is that simple, why bother remembering anything?
Throughout life, I’ve unknowingly taken this exact approach to math. I know how to do division and I understand the basics of numbers and algebra. But when it comes to actually doing calculations in my head, I’m a buffoon. It hasn’t held be back because of one of the world’s great inventions: the calculator. If you can do the calculation in your head, and I can get the answer almost as fast on a calculator, does that really make you better than me? Are math skills as important as Kellaway seems to think, or am I just seeking excuses to cover up my own personal shame?!
Kellaway *is* right about one thing:
I can only say: thank God.