Jeroen Dijsselbloem on money and math

I wasn’t going to join the hype in the European media about eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem. The hype is only about money and that isn’t so interesting, contrary to what the nice people at the Financial Times tell you. However, it so happens that Jeroen Dijsselbloem also has been the chair of a Dutch Parliamentary Inquiry Commmittee on Innovations in Education in 2007-2008. Now we are talking. For this brings us to the issue of the education in mathematics.

The European media hype is about whether Dijsselbloem knew what a ‘template’ is. He says on Dutch television that he didn’t know the word. He did however reply to a question containing it, see the FT Reuters transcript. Apparently the political distinction is now being made between an ‘approach’ and a ‘template’. We may figure that Dijsselbloem is a sensible and intelligent person who gets the drift of a question, so we can forgive him for not responding: “Can you explain what you mean by a template ?” It is actually not so nice of the reporters at FT Reuters to make such a fuss about this. They are just as guilty in this blame-game, for after Dijsselbloem’s reply they didn’t ask for confirmation: “So this will be the template, just to be sure that we will not quote you in a wrong manner ?” The real fuss is the command of English and the state of the Dutch system of education.

The European media hype is also about whether Dijsselbloem over-enthousiastically took the Dutch approach to SNS-Reaal-bank and Cyprus as the future approach for the Eurozone (if we allow for that word). It may be that he overplayed his position as president and that other members have different thoughts. This may indeed be the case. The other members may have shown polite interest in what Dijsselbloem has been explaining about his ideas, and it may be that Dijsselbloem mistook this for agreement. Deep in the hype, harsh words may have been spoken, but, as diplomats tend to do, internally, far removed from the spotlights. Well, every Dutch(wo)man has to learn that Europe isn’t just a ‘big Holland’. We all remember the difficulty that Wim Duisenberg had in 2000 after the introduction of the euro and the questions about the exchange rate policy.

Nevertheless, the EU is setting up a Banking Union with a European Banking Authority. On that single webpage we see words like ‘supervision’, ‘regulation’, ‘mechanism’, ‘vision’ and ‘roadmap’, but we do not see the word ‘approach’ yet. Downloading the Communication, we see that the Banking Union distinguishes ‘the most significant European systemically important banks’ and the ‘others’. The first will have to be saved at all cost, the others will be allowed to implode. Thus Dijsselbloem quite accurately warns us to put our money in a system bank, unless we are risk-prone and like a little bit of higher interest plus the thrill of a possible collapse. The warning is also that each bank in trouble should quicky join a system bank so that it will be saved.

I might sound a bit sarcastic but in reality I am referring to my earlier Economic Plan for Europe and the suggestion for a new EMU treaty, plus an additional analysis that I hope to be able to put on the web soon. [Addendum April 3: it is here now.]

Now the interesting part. For Dutch education, we find a similar juggling of words. The Dijsselbloem Committee in 2008 distinguishes ‘what’ from ‘how’. Parliament decides what will be taught at school, and the teaching community decides how it will be taught. The Committee observes that this rule had been violated in the past, with various ‘innovations in education’, that Parliament loved but teachers abhorred, and that caused Dutch education to go down the drain.

The Committee didn’t investigate how it came about, that Parliament loved ‘innovations’ that the teachers abhorred. Apparently Dijsselbloem takes it for granted that Parliament doesn’t listen to teachers. Indeed, after the Committee report was declared a success, Parliament decided that highschool graduation should include a test on basic numerical skills, and a fail would even block graduation. Parliament thinks that this is a ‘what’ but actually it is a ‘how’. Learning to count is for young children and not for teenagers. Elementary schools should provide for those basic numerical skills, but they are failing to do so, both because of ‘innovations’ and because of elementary school teachers who have insufficient numerical skills themselves. Apparently Parliament wants to fix this by shifting the burden onto the higher level. Dutch readers with a strong heart and love for horror shows would want to read Jaap de Jonge “Opkomst en ondergang van de rekentoets” (Rise and Fall of the Numerical Test), March 2013, Euclides 88/5 p224-225. Unfortunately, that magazine of the Dutch Association of Teachers of Mathematics tends to keep important information behind a pay-wall.

Now to the Grand Finale. My point is that Parliament has decided that schools must teach math, but the teachers do not deliver math, but something that they call ‘math’. Mathematicians are trained for abstraction, but in class they meet real live students, and they resolve their cognitive dissonance by clinging to a tradition that has grown over the ages, but that isn’t targetted at proper didactics. See my books Elegance with Substance 2009 and Conquest of the Plane 2011. Thus the Dijsselbloem distinction at first seems to have some merit, but breaks down when Parliament refuses to check whether it really gets what it intends to get. The distinction between ‘what’ and ‘how’ is somewhat illusory, if the people responsible for the ‘how’ destroy the ‘what’.

The only solution is that Parliament starts paying attention to teachers rather than the bureaucrats and lobbyists. The only solution lies in an open atmosphere, where people can speak freely and frankly, where we treat people and ideas with respect, and where we judge issues on their merit.

More on this in my paper What a mathematician might wish to know about my work, March 2013.

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