The Corner


Don’t Forget the ’Rithmetic

Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers and sprinter Usain Bolt (Molly Riley and Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters)

My Impromptus today has a variety of subjects, of course, but it ends with a note on math — which may be a first. A note on math from me? Isn’t that like a note from a sloth on Usain Bolt (the Jamaican sprinter)? Well, that’s kind of the point.

I cite a news story out of Paris, which goes,

France’s government is worried about how many of its schoolchildren consider themselves “stupid at math.”

The education minister released a report Monday commissioned by renowned mathematician and legislator Cedric Villani describing “catastrophic” scores and recommending 21 steps to turn things around.

France’s math scores have been sinking on international rankings for most of this century. The report warns that the current system is leading to “a lasting loss of self-esteem” that continues into adulthood …

I say I can sing a few bars of that. Anyway, I’d like to add something here on the Corner.

Lawrence Summers, late of the Clinton administration, was inaugurated as president of Harvard in October 2001. And in his address he said something that pricked at me: No one would admit to not having read, say, Hamlet; but “it is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome or the meaning of exponential growth.”

I immediately looked up the difference between a gene and a chromosome, and the precise definition of “exponential growth” — to mean more than “a whole lotta growth.”

President Summers touched on an important, and sore, point. (But please don’t quiz me today.)

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