Pernicious Nonsense

By Crispin Sartwell

Once again we prepare to entrust our children to professional educators, kissing the upturned, trusting faces and waving goodbye with a certain relief and a certain anxiety. The anxiety is well-placed, for this year once again our children will be learning material that is completely baseless, that is grounded entirely on the new age, politically-correct consensus of well-meaning fools.

I refer, of course, to mathematics.

Mathematics is a sort of necromancy or pagan religion. It has no basis in fact or in theory. It is concerned entirely with entities of which it has no clear conception.

I was scrounging around in my dictionary the other day, looking up "sforzando," when I came across the following definition of "seven": "the cardinal number between 6 and 8." Now it is not hard to see that this will not help you understand the meaning of "seven" unless you already understand the meaning of "six" and "eight," which will themselves only be comprehensible in terms of three further numbers, including seven itself.

Being curious about this apparent emptiness of the simplest notions of mathematics, I posted a contest on my website, soliciting defensible definitions of "seven." What I got was a lecture in the philosophy of mathematics from Princeton professor and Slate columnist Jordan Ellenberg, and a facetious rant from a grad student named Jesse Gutierrez, which began "Dude. It's a number. What do you want?" Everyone else seemed suddenly to realize that they had no idea how to say what "seven" means.

Ellenberg's lecture was fascinating, and it detailed a number of approaches that one might take to solving the problem, each of them extremely difficult, obscure, and elaborate, and each of them absolutely incompatible with all the others. It was clear, first, that people have been working on the problem for about 2,500 years, and, second, that they haven't gotten any nearer to a solution than they were when Pythagoras asserted that things like rocks and stars were actually made of numbers, whatever that might mean.

Perhaps you are thinking that you know quite clearly what "seven" means, and you are even now in a rather irritated way counting out fingers or something. However, it is easy to see that "seven" does not actually refer to anything in the world. Add one raindrop to another to another to another to another to another to another and you get one raindrop. Do the same with rabbits and you get 4,601.

You could show me the representation of a triangle, but of course no one has ever seen a triangle as defined by "geometry," which is bounded by "lines" which have no width.

Of course, everyone thinks they know what seven is. But there was a time when everyone knew what a demon was, or that the world was composed of four elements.

Famously, the theologians of the middle ages debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But they had no idea what the phrase "how many" meant, much less what sort of thing an angel was.

Unless and until mathematics can give a better account of itself, we must regard it as so much gobbledygook, and we must protect our children from such superstitious nonsense. Mathematics represents just the kind of loose, empty thinking that characterizes so many of the ephemeral fashions in education these days.

To expose kids to mathematics is the height of irresponsibility.

In the hallowed words of the great role model Whitney Houston, I believe that children are our future. You and I must join together with millions of other concerned parents in a movement to remove mathematics from all schools, public and private, secular and parochial. We owe it to the children.