Social equation

July 18, 2013

Both your interview with Michael Sandel (“Moneyball and chains”, 11 July) and Fred Inglis’ enthusiastic review of Arts of the Political (“Surging currents of resistance”, Books, 11 July) raise awareness once again of the dangers posed by the near-total dominance of money and market economics in politics (and hence, by government writ, in academia and education). This is the number-one insoluble-looking problem - and cause - of our time. The “cause” is not against money and markets as such but against the desensitisation towards other values they have brought. We need to understand how this happened, and how any kind of intellectual and/or spirited intervention can help. The first pillar of wisdom is surely that it is not just money, but money plus maths plus microelectronics - the three Ms - that have captured the hopeful imagination of millions.

Digital microelectronics is hard to fault. This is surely mankind’s best technical hope for the future.

Money as an institution inevitably rests on social stability and confidence in the integrity of its keepers (the bankers). There are doubts about both but there is relatively little that thinking per se can do to help.

Maths is both the weak link in the triumvirate and the ultimate enforcer because it intimidates the masses, the political class and even most of the bankers. What abstruse maths is said to say, very few are minded to question.

So we are brought to the conclusion that the most urgent task is to demystify maths, to make its meaning and true social role widely known, and hence to neutralise the intimidation. Mathematicians have tended to resist any kind of re-examination of their hoary discourse: and they are right to insist that if this is done, it must be done to the highest standards. But it needs to be done. The 21st century needs a new form of maths education that self-evidently brings out the human meaning of the subject. That myopic, masochistic maths is still being dished up in classrooms might seem a long way from the battle with money dominance in society but it is the agent that underpins the pain.

Chris Ormell
Editor of Prospero

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