I have been vaguely aware for decades of people being proud of their innumeracy. A recent experience brought this awareness into sharp relief, and this post explores my thoughts on the subject of innumeracy.
What is Innumeracy?
It can be slightly difficult to define innumeracy in terms of mathematical content (“Can you add up two numbers in your head?”), but it is rather easier to define it in terms of how it impacts on people’s lives.
For example, the ability to reckon with money is crucial for tradesmen, but it ability to “count out the change to the amount tendered” is not usually important to people in a supermarket checkout. However, there are other walks of life, such as traffic flow management in a city, which require being fully skilled in some specialised areas of mathematics, and anybody with out those skills could not function.
Innumeracy and Literacy
There is agreement in most societies that literacy is an important skill which everybody should have. It would be pointless to reiterate the reasons behind that feeling.
But as with numeracy, there are different levels of literacy. Journalists, by the very nature of their work, are highly literate creatures. People who write blog posts also need a certain level of literacy, though nothing like to the same degree. Anybody who has been involved in a serious car accident will have needed to write an accident report. Having some anonymised accident reports on the Internet, it soon becomes apparent that some people are functionally illiterate.
In the light of this, I would argue that while the levels of illiteracy and innumeracy may be different in society as a whole, they are different manifestions of the same underlying problem: the lessened ability to function in today’s world.
Why is Innumeracy Tolerated?
The heading for this section of this post is deliberately provocative, and is a consequence of my own annoyance at those who appear to be proud of their own innumeracy.
I would guess that a lower level of numeracy than level of literacy is required to operate successfully in today’s world. You may wish express your own opinions on this matter in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
If people are happy with their lives with their current levels of numeracy and literacy, that is a life choice that they make, and I feel that they should be allowed to get on with their lives without anybody else saying “You really ought to learn about …” – that for me would amount to intolerable interference. For myself, I am driven by a need to learn about a particular area of mathematics. (If you really want to know what that area is, then follow this link.)
However, I draw the line at people who are proud of their innumeracy. It seems to me like a form of inverted snobbery. That would be okay with me if that was as far as it went (I could simply ignore them), but such people are inevitably rôle models for others, particularly children. In doing so, these people are handicapping their next generation, and is to my mind no more acceptable than the practice of binding children’s feet as they are growing up.
In short, I wish such people would keep their innumeracy to themselves.
Innumeracy and illiteracy were a social stigma when I went to (and for a long time after I left) school.
I think the situation we have today (certainly in the U.K.) stems from the tolerance of under-performance by “politically correct” education mandarins who have driven the attainment goals of much of the last two generations of pupils by the “lowest common denominator” principle.
Excellence and competition have been replaced by tolerance and complacency.
Add to this the fact that calculators, computers and other forms of mathematical aid have been allowed too soon into the classroom and you have the toxic mix that produced today’s lamentable situation. This is only my opinion of course …
From the literacy perspective, the previously creeping, now rushing, wave of text abbreviation and other social media phenomena is causing the corruption (some would optimistically say development) of the language on a scale and at a pace not seen in history.
I’m not sure what can be done about it in reality, though I suspect that a solution lies in the direction of raising standards and providing extra recognition to higher achievers.
Any more from me will verge on right-wing extremism in the eyes of some, so I shall now desist!
Thanks for your comment Mike, and I quite agree with your point about dumbing down.
I will now off-topic. (I know I shouldn’t, being as I wrote the original post, but that’s just too bad.) Coming from a background where both my parents were linguists, I am very open to the message that English, being a natural language, evolves. One has only to think of the Shavian “shew” rather than “show”, and the increasingly frequent use of the word “resume” rather than “résumé” by employers. (This last does cause me mirth: how can I possibly send them a “re-commencement”? But that is just a jocular aside.)
My own view is that abbreviations, such as textese, serve to enrich the language. Others may choose to abandon words, but that results in impoverishment that impacts only on the abandoner. We have been using the abbreviation “Mr” instead of “mister” for a very long time. Another is “cv”.
I’m with you very largely on the matter of abbreviations and their acceptability, possibly even desirability.
I find myself abbreviating immensely on Twitter to get inside the 140 chr limit, and as an early user of SMS, I was into L8R much sooner than most.
My problem tho ( … 🙂 … ) is best illustrated by the use of “no” for “know” in the normal language, which I see quite often in use outside of txtng and twtng.
A relation of mine, 2 generations from me, responded recently to the news of my Dad’s demise, with the immortal phrase “tho i no Unkle Wes was alwes thinking best of peple”.
They were not abbreviating – that was their genuine view of the right way to write it. Sad.
When “no” becomes the accepted abbreviation for “know” we have definitely lost an important battle.
AIMHO of course 🙂
Agreed. When people cannot be bothered to remove such obvious ambiguity from their communications, in whatever form, I think it is downright laziness.