“There’s gold in them thar hills!”
I think that was probably the thinking behind the lessons in Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus and the like, that I was subjected to in my second, third and fourth years at grammar school.
They were panning for gold. I’m not talking about the shiny stuff people mined for in the west and north of Wales, most famously at Clogau (which by the way has been closed since 1998, because of the high cost of extraction). No, I’m talking about intellectual gold … and undoubtedly there is, and was, intellectual gold in the hills and valleys of South Wales.
We’ve all seen panning on the telly – dig out your rock; put some bits in a shallow container, known technically as a “pan”; run water through it, and the detritus will be swept away, leaving tiny specks of real gold. And the same principle was applied in maths. lessons at my school.
About five or six times a week, the raw material (boys) would be put into the panning vessel (the classroom) to be inundated with a stream of mathematical theorems, formulae and equations. The process usually lasted for around sixty minutes.
“Fox, are you chewing? Get out boy!”
By the end of the lesson, I had either been ejected from the classroom or remained, numbed, zombie-like, at my desk, my brain having been turned to sediment. But, of course, I was not alone. This panning process wasn’t just going on at my school (see below), but all over Wales – and indeed all over Britain. And had been happening for decades. And, if my brief career as a secondary school teacher is anything to go by, it continues to this day.
Personally, I can count on the fingers of 5z – (2x2 + (X/y)) hands the number of times algebra has been of any practical help to me in my adult life.
But perhaps that’s not the point. The fact of the matter is, though I may have been a mere fleck of precipitate, I was doing my bit …
For it is only through the dedication of the many, many thousands of people like me, down the years, enduring the trials and tribulations of integration, cosines and quadratic thingumybobs, that the Dr. Stephen Hawkings of this world were able to be unearthed, there, shiny and glistening, at the bottom of the educational pan.
“Write out, one hundred times: The Mill Cannot Grind When The Water Has Flowed Past The Wheel”.
And also of course, to the dedication of schoolmasters such as dear Dr Jenkins. The best efforts of Dr Jenkins (below right), with his less than gentle approach in matters of persuasion, were singularly unsuccessful in instilling an understanding in me of concepts that explain how the world is, in a sense, painted by numbers. So mine is a blind acceptance of that fact.
But not so Stephen Hawking. Although he may have changed his mind about the existence of black holes recently, I’m proud of the fact that I was able to contribute to his researches, albeit by default, by attending all those lessons.
As I recall there were 36 academic weeks in the year. A rough approximation would suggest I attended five one hour lessons per week covering algebra, etc., over a period of three years. I was probably kicked out of class or sent to the headmaster during about 15% of the lessons. So, where
A = the grand total time I spent in algebra, etc. lessons,
x = the number of hours per week spent attending algebra, etc. lessons,
y = the number of academic weeks per year,
z = the number of years spent in maths. lessons,
and c = the percentage of lessons missed through having been caught chewing gum, reading the latest Cardiff City match programme or looking out of the window,
then (correct me if I’m wrong)
A = c(xyz)/100
Putting actual data into that equation we discover that A = (5 x 36 x 3) x 85% = (540 hours) x 85% = 459 hours or some 19 full days of my life.
For my own part, I found that no information escaped from the black holes that were those maths. lessons. Indeed, as I exited the “event horizon” (the doorway to the classroom), I felt that I had already become part of the singularity … I was infinitely dense.
Image credit: “GA gold panning”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GA_gold_panning.png#mediaviewer/File:GA_gold_panning.png