In praise of simple arithmetic

In praise of simple arithmetic

We learned arithmetic, percentage and simple interest in Class 6, in many ways the landmark year, the watershed of our educational career. Everything else that followed was, to say the least, simply time-pass.

First came algebra, followed by linear equations, then quadratic equations and trigonometry. By Class 12, we were doing calculus, laboriously differentiating functions and later integrating them back, just for the heck of it.

To join the science stream was the ‘in’ thing those days and so after Class 12, we went to a science college and started off from where we had left off — learning Fourier Series, Probability Theory and some mind numbing subjects, Set Theory and Theory of Numbers. Side by side, as physics students, we were soon busy finding the least count of Vernier Calipers, refractive index of water and vibrating frequencies of tuning forks. By the time we stumbled out with a post graduate degree we were speaking of Schrodinger’s cat and psi- functions in a language which made no sense to anyone, including ourselves.

It never occurred to us ‘why’ we should be learning all these subjects. Why on earth should a function be differentiated? Why should the two sides of an equation be proved equal? All the learning was of the ‘how’? How to use litmus to distinguish acids from alkalis, how to set up the test tubes and pipettes and the Bunsen burner to distill water, how to cut open hapless frogs and label their entrails.

When I look at the books I studied in those years I am filled with admiration for myself. I must have been one smart guy to have read those books and passed those exams. Today, I think I may not even get through a Class 10 exam. I simply cannot see the point in solving a quadratic equation anymore.

The aim of all those hours of learning by rote was that you become eligible for a job. Once you get the job, unless it is teaching or academics, it brings to an end the purpose of your entire school and college education. I am yet to find a situation which requires the knowledge of practically anything I studied from high school upwards.

The only thing required now is knowledge of simple arithmetic, so that you can add up the grocery bill, and ensure you have not been shortchanged. Or work out the yearly fees of the children when you are shocked by the monthly fees. A bit of simple interest calculation to determine the measly interest on your FD and to double check the suspiciously large EMIs of your housing loan. The multiplication tables of 4 and 6 to enjoy a cricket run chase. Some knowledge of speed and distance so you will know when you will reach home at the speed you are driving, and simple addition to get the sum total of what your family will get if you don’t reach at all.

All that is required once you are done with your nuclear physics and quantum mechanics and landed yourself a job, is a pocket calculator with basic functions. And you can dispense with even that if you had paid attention in your Class 6 and learned to do it all in the head.

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