There’s a fascinating line in the opening pages of Here’s Looking at Euclid:

By age 16, school kids have learned almost no math beyond what was already known in the mid-seventeenth century, and likewise by the time they are 18 they have not gone beyond the mid-eighteenth century.

If the point of schooling is to teach the current best understanding of the world, we appear to be failing.

Granted, maths is unlike science in that the old ways are built upon rather than overturned. We still learn Pythagoras theorem but not geocentrism.

This necessitates teaching newer mathematical discoveries in addition to what came before it. But is there really no recent mathematical discovery that would be useful to learn in school? Or at least help us shape more rounded adults, equipped for the modern world? Boolean algebra mayhaps?

I was thinking about this as I came across the following passage in The Lady Tasting Tea:

As measurements became more and more precise, more and more error cropped up. The clockwork universe lay in shambles. Attempts to discover the laws of biology and sociology had failed. In the older sciences like physics and chemistry, the laws that Newton and Laplace had used were proving to be only rough approximations. Gradually, science began to work with a new paradigm, the statistical model of reality. By the end of the twentieth century, almost all of science had shifted to using statistical models… Popular culture has failed to keep up with this scientific revolution. Some vague ideas and expressions (like “correlation,” “odds,” and “risk”) have drifted into the popular vocabulary, and most people are aware of the uncertainties associated with some areas of science like medicine and economics, but few nonscientists have any understanding of the profound shift in philosophical view that has occurred

It’s definitely my experience that people are more comfortable with a deterministic model of the universe than a probabilistic one. But why are so many of us stuck in old paradigms even as our world has become immensely sophisticated and complicated?

If nothing else, a more widespread probabilistic model would lead to more nuanced discussions around new research and challenges like climate change. A more modern understanding of mathematics would help us all get the most of technological advances.

Many of the books I’ve read criticising modern education see it as a relic of the industrial revolution and empire, geared towards producing identical widgets to keep things running smoothly. Can’t help thinking that’s right. And we haven’t changed it much.

As always my emphasis.