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Tag Archives: maths

 “A specially commissioned Irish Times poll in 2014 revealed most people had no idea the bulk of government spending went on social welfare payments, including pensions, and public service pay. Most people believed politicians’ pay accounted for more spending than either of these items.” –

The media, according to the author of the article, Stephen Collins, must take some responsibility for this ignorance. He’s wrong. For once the media cannot be responsible. Ignorance – no, let’s be blunt, monumental stupidity – on this scale wasn’t caused by media. The survey result suggests a spectacular and basic failure in the Irish education system.

Regularly a citizen hears it said or reported in the media something along the lines of, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …” Average intelligence and slight education should prompt reaction, “Hang on, that can’t be true!”

Right, let’s admit intelligence for all. That means turning attention to education. It is unacceptable that the majority of respondents in a properly conducted survey are incapable of participation in a basic public controversy. That such mass incompetence has been found should prompt a rush to research in order to find the root of the failure.

Ok, let’s not over-react. It was one survey and its purpose was not to measure educational attainment, but it does accord with my experience as a lecturer, a consumer of media and a citizen who engages in casual conversation at bus stops.

Apart altogether from the concern that a significant number of citizens cannot participate in a public controversy, there should also be concern among those who view education as training for work. That is to say, there is little point in fussing over the proportion of students taking higher level maths in the Leaving Certificate or the general maths needs of industry, when it would seem that perhaps the majority have no grasp of numbers and quantity.

Returning to the degree of blame for public ignorance which journalists should bear, it may be that they are as much victims of a failure to educate as the citizens whose views they report. Consider the possibility that many journalists think it makes sense when someone says, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …”

I realise that Una Mulally’s piece in the Irish Times on Saturday (*) last was essentially about the lifestyles of young workers in successful, fashionable companies located in Dublin’s docklands but there is something odd about it which prompted me to return to doubts I have about the basis on which rests the view that Ireland needs to increase the numbers graduating in science and engineering.

While I fear that the level of general knowledge and basic expertise in maths, science and engineering is well short of what a competent citizen requires to participate fully today, I can’t seem to find data which compels support for the view that the third level educational system should increase significantly the number of specialist graduates. The conventional media view, fuelled by those who teach maths, science and engineering – especially I.T – is that students are foolish if they do not clamour for entry to these courses which more or less guarantee employment. This is at odds with anecdotal evidence which suggests at least some level of unemployment. The key to this puzzle may lie in the term “tech sector”.

Here’s what Una Mulally reports, “Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.” She then goes on to talk about skill shortages in Ireland which result in the immigration of bright young people from across Europe. However, here’s the interesting aspect: the only specific skill mentioned is languages and the only formal degree mentioned is a PhD in politics held by a young Italian woman who works in Dublin for PayPal.

With the possible exception of risk management (**) none of the jobs mentioned suggest that a degree in science or technology is a requirement; these people are working in marketing, customer support, business development and recruitment. However, they see themselves as working in the “tech sector”. It seems plausible to suggest that when journalists talk about career opportunities in the “tech sector”, they are not talking exclusively about technical jobs but about jobs traditionally filled by humanities and business graduates who now need a range of skills – well short of graduate level expertise – such as to make them employable not in a technological role but in office-type industries created by or fundamentally changed by I.T. generally and the net in particular. (***)

The almost cavalier use of the term “tech sector” may be contributing to woolly thinking about third level education in two distinct ways. (****) Firstly, there is risk that the requirement for science and engineering graduates becomes overstated. Secondly, there is a risk that the degree to which the office workplace has changed is not recognised and – language skills aside – this may be why the companies mentioned in the article need to search far and wide when recruiting graduates.


** The article doesn’t mention it but it is posibble that maths graduates are involved here.

*** I’ve written before about the changes wrought by technology and the skills which are now essentially a precondition for the employment of humanities graduates:

**** The two are discussed here:


The following is from “Making the grade in maths”, The Irish Times, Wednesday, August 13, 2008

 “And it is not only the Leaving Cert results which should serve as a wake-up call. The most recent OECD survey ranked Irish teenagers 16th in maths out of 30 member countries. In overall English literacy tests, by contrast, Irish teenagers regularly take one of the top three places. A mid-table ranking in maths is simply not good enough for a country investing heavily in science, technology and innovation. Even at third level, academics tell of students – some with higher level Leaving Cert maths – who have a poor grasp of mathematical concepts and an inability to apply the knowledge they do have outside practised routine situations.”

 This is typical of the poorly informed consensus, which surrounds the education debate in Ireland.

No one with any teaching experience at 3rd level could take seriously the claim that Irish students are literate. Many are, but the overall standard of English is dreadful. It is equally true that students have a poor standard of general knowledge, are not numerate, and have a very poor grasp of mathematical, scientific and technological concepts.

The phrase, “practised routine situations”, above is telling. There is a problem in Irish primary and secondary education. Students are taught routines that will trick the examiners: memorised essays/answers in the humanities and memorised procedures in maths. It is hardly surprising that students are bored and lack the creative skills born of a good education. Consider the plight of a student who can solve a maths problem but doesn’t know why it is a problem, where it comes from or what it is for!

The quotation also peddles the familiar nonsense that humanities and maths/science can be kept apart. Anyone who really has thought about “the information society” would realise how dated this approach now is.