It’s always good to subtract maths

A national alarm resounded across our great land this week. Our Deputy PM and Minister Pretty Much Everything, Julia Gillard, hit the airwaves to talk about a crisis which could threaten Australia’s very future. Not interest rates, for a change, but the rate of interest in maths. Our fair nation isn’t producing enough highly trained mathematicians, apparently, and as a result, important numbers are apparently remaining uncrunched. The crisis is so bad that I couldn’t even find reliable stats on the rate of participation in advanced maths. So Ms Gillard is springing into action, announcing plans to push kids into the dark numerical arts by means of reducing HECS payments for maths students and issuing free pocket protectors for all.

But the growing dearth of mathematicians is not a cause for concern. Rather, we should be popping champagne corks, and not bothering to calculate their trajectory. Because the maths industry is nothing more than a cruel conspiracy by science graduates to give themselves jobs. And so, just so some dork without the social skills to earn a respectable living can put food on the table, Australian kids are forced to endure the misery of mathematics year after year. Forget Abu Ghraib, it’s Alge Bra that is the most heinous violation of human rights in our time.

And while that was an absolutely appalling joke, the mere fact I could make it in the first place is because I studied something genuinely useful – the humanities.

This trend brings joy to my heart, because it indicates that my mortal enemy is in decline. It’s the greatest news I’ve heard since that wonderful day in 1993 when my high school told me I didn’t have to take maths for the HSC. They still made me suffer through the first part of the 2-Unit course in Year 11 for no discernible reason other than sadism, but, like any victim of post-traumatic stress disorder who has finally learned to let go of the past, I’ve now succeeded in purging my brain of all that pointless trigonometry.

I’m not opposed to the acquisition of basic mathematical skills. A little numeracy is important. I still use mental arithmetic and my times tables constantly. Weights and measures are pretty useful as well. But once you’ve left primary school, there’s nothing further that mathematics can offer the average person. In the 15 years since I stopped studying maths, I have drawn on the stuff I learned in high school a grand total of zero times. Plus, for anything that’s in the least bit complex involving numbers, there’s always Microsoft Excel. We should have been able to use it in our school exams, because for the rest of my life, whenever I need to do something with numbers, I’m hardly going to whip out an exercise book and a protractor.

Sure, okay, so there are some people who need to know mathematics. I’m a fan of the people who design buildings I’m likely to enter knowing how to calculate whether it’s going to fall over. But it should be a highly specialised trade. We need fewer people studying mathematics, not more, so that the rest of us don’t have to burden ourselves with something so boring. What on earth did we bother to invent computers for, if not to outsource the whole of maths to them?

We’d all have been much better off studying economics, which addresses the complex ways that far simpler kinds of numbers can impact on our everyday lives. The addition of 0.25% to interest rates by the Reserve Bank couldn’t be simpler mathematically, but the results of that number for our everyday lives is of huge importance.

Mathematicians, as far as I’m concerned, your days are numbered. And no, I don’t want to know how they’re numbered. I’m just delighted to hear that, as time progresses, the number of you is inching ever closer to zero.

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