A complete mind

Those who actually read the studies, however, can find sentences such as “no significant differences in employment have been found between those who studied three, four and five units of math.

Empty Classroom (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Empty Classroom
‘The days when a child couldn’t complete his matriculation with five units of mathematics solely because of where he lives are over,” declared the education minister. And rightfully so – but why only math? “Bring us students who study five units of mathematics!” is the current bon ton, backed by studies that emphasize the connection between math, employment and earning.
Those who actually read the studies, however, can find sentences such as “no significant differences in employment have been found between those who studied three, four and five units of math.” The influence of math on earning potential is indirect, i.e. those who study five units of math tend to choose high-earning professions. Studies have shown that there is no empirical evidence supporting the notion that high-level mathematics at a young age results in greater success later in life. Furthermore it has been found that in-depth studies of a discipline at a young age lead to better employment and earnings, but that math has no advantage over other disciplines.
The immediate conclusion is that the very process of in-depth learning – be it math, literature, biology or history – enables the development of skills duly transferable and implemented in other fields if so desired.
We all know people who exemplify this very process – studied arts or social studies in high school but became scientists or doctors later in life, and vice versa. Anyone who studied science or engineering at the university knows that during his freshman year, or longer, he was required to study basic math and statistics, regardless of the number of units he studied in high school. Success was due to learning skills, and these were much more teacher-dependent than discipline-dependent.
But why should we let all this confuse us? The school year has begun, and discussions regarding achievements in general and in math in particular are at a peak. Our national strength depends on what is known as STS – the Gordian connection between science (including math), technology (including engineering) and society (including the arts). But the discussion we are witnessing creates a false conception, as if all were due to only part of this equation, ignoring the other parts, that are crucial, as Da Vinci said, “to develop a complete mind.”
IN THE many interactions we organize between Wolf Prize laureates and high school students, the most important process that we witness is the creation of motivation, identification and inspiration. Every year, we hear reactions such as “He discussed the Talmud with me... the Talmud! But he’s the laureate in mathematics! Can you believe it?” and “besides being a genius in medicine, he builds guitars and plays in a band” and “he told us that he has physicists in his art studio, who create the artwork with him... he actually employs them!” Parents who come to our activities emphasize that they are happy to see their children’s multi-disciplinary success – they are all active in science as well as music, creative writing, community volunteering and youth groups.
A multi-disciplinary approach is crucial for the success of individuals and society as a whole. Graduates of the sciences (mathematicians, biotechnologists, engineers), the humanities (politicians, archeologists, philosophers) and the arts (musicians, designers, choreographers) all depend on one another.
Culture grows from the combination of their actions and achievements. A society that under-appreciates one will severely disable the other.
A mathematician without the understanding of poetry, an author without environmental awareness, a computer engineer without knowledge in music and a philosopher who hasn’t studied evolution – all may be achievers in their fields, but the society they will build will be a community of narrow-minded, spiritless zealots who find it difficult to communicate with each other, greatly lacking in pluralism, tolerance and democracy.
“Our intellectual and moral superiority are our greatest asset,” said David Ben-Gurion. He spoke of excellence in general. I would expect his prime student, who rushed to support the “give-me-five in mathematics” campaign, to remember his teacher’s lesson.
And if someone doesn’t understand it, try explaining using terms from set theory.
The author is director general of the Wolf Foundation, which awards the prestigious international Wolf Prize annually to scientists and artists from around the world for extraordinary achievement in their fields.