Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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26/5/19: I hope I'm not becoming a grumpy old man...

One of my colleagues, of a similar age to me, told me of a recent conversation with one of our pupils, in which he was trying to explain what life was like in the days, well within our memory, before video recorders, let alone DVD, multichannel TV, on demand services such as Netflix and iplayer.  "So what you're saying," the pupil asked, eyes open wide in sheer wonder, "is that, when you were my age, if you wanted to watch a certain programme, you had to be in at a particular time to do so?"  "Well, yes."  "But that means..." she started, but then tailed off in wonderment at how life could be so utterly different for her elderly teacher.

(Parenthetical thought: I had a similar-but-different conversation of my own recently with a 14 year old pupil, which started when I let slip that I started to teach in 1988.  "1988!" he said, jaw dropping nearly to the floor and eyes open as wide as saucers.  "But that's,..." and he tailed off as he tried to process this truly extraordinary information whilst, I like to think, trying to stay polite at the same time.

(Now, I'm no mind reader, so the following is pure fiction.  But I imagine what was going on in my pupil's brain was something like this.  "1988!  But that is before the world began, isn't it?  No, no, the world did exist but there were dinosaurs roaming, weren't there?  Or was that during Roman times?"  When he finally did speak he said, "So you were in your 20s then?"  Tempted thought I was to wind him up still further, I agreed that, yes, in 1988 I was in my 20s.  Would like to think that some mental arithmetic had been going on at this stage - we maths teachers live in hope that our pupils put our subject to a practical use and revealing our age in these circumstances seems a very small price to pay - but I'm not entirely sure that that was the case.

(I would say that I have a very clear childhood memory of being somewhat flummoxed as to how Jesus Christ could have done the things he did recorded in the gospels whilst there were dinosaurs roaming around.  Not sure how old I was when I nailed that one  - seventeen, maybe?  In all seriousness, it did worry me when I was part of a Sunday School teaching team for 5-7 year olds that, as we looked at Jesus Christ, Moses, Joseph, etc. we were putting demands on their emerging understanding of history beyond that which was happening at school.  I shall possibly return to this point in the future, for the time being, end of parenthetical thought, thank you for your patience.)

But my colleague's conversation got me thinking.  The idea that we can watch TV programmes we want when we want to do so is one of many examples I can think of as to changes which have occurred well within my memory which mean that we can have what we want exactly when we want it in a way which simply wasn't previously possible.  So, on a lazy Saturday morning I can, whilst lying in bed, be reading a Bible commentary on my Kindle which refers to another book, without needing to move, by pressing a few buttons, I have downloaded  for free a sample of that book or, if I choose to do so, can have the whole book ready to read.  Reading a Philippa Gregory historical novel and wanting to check out the time line of the Plantagenets?  No problem, reach for my phone or laptop and within a few seconds can find out what I want to know. Driving along listening to Classic FM thinking, "Oh, that's nice, I wonder what that piece is?" I press a few buttons and up pops the information.  And how could I have known, growing up in a house with 2 Bakelite phones fixed at particular places, that before many years had passed, there would be answer machines, cordless phones, caller identification and, of course, mobile phones - remember the earliest models which required carrying a suitcase around?  If I want to buy something, I press a few buttons on my computer and the following day it gets delivered to my door.  No need, of course, to have the money available to pay for the item, my credit card will take care of that for me, in the short term at least... When I spent a year in Indonesia at the age of 18 it took letters a minimum of a week to arrive whilst phone calls were prohibitively expensive, email and Skype - which make international communications very cheap and pretty well instantaneous - were both some way in the future.

Let me be clear, I like all the things I've described above.  I got used, living in Dar es Salaam, to watching long TV series and have continued to do so, I only rarely watch TV when it is actually broadcast nowadays.  The Kindle is an amazing invention which I really appreciate.  Being able to pick up phone messages rather than necessarily being in and available at the same time as the person calling me is fantastic.

And yet, and yet, and yet.  It seems to me that there's a big price to pay for this, "I can have what I want exactly when I want it," mentality.  For one thing, it's not always the case.  When I was moving back into my house two years ago, I was somewhat nonplussed to discover that I had to wait for 3 months for my sofa-bed to arrive, I mentioned this to a friend who said that a number of high profile lottery winners experienced the same - suddenly having a large amount of cash and wanting to buy a brand new top of the range car, only to discover that they're made to order with little warehousing.  In the classroom I find myself frequently in a conversation with one child which is interrupted by another wanting my immediate attention.  As patiently as I try to explain that, I'm talking to this person, I'll get to you in a minute, I'm not sure that the explanation connects.

More generally, the whole process of learning is a long drawn out affair with lots of boring bits alongside a relatively few number of, "Ah ha!" moments.  Whilst Malcolm Gladwell's theory that 10 000 hours of practice are necessary to gain mastery in any given field has been criticised, it has considerable resonance for me.  I consider myself fortunate to have learnt to play the piano before the arrival of electronic keyboards which give background accompaniment, giving a sense of immediate success but actually giving a false impression as to the level of accomplishment which has taken place, with poor technique learnt in the short term which is then difficult to unlearn if one is serious about making progress in the field.

In his book, "I wish it were fiction: Holocaust memories 1939-1945", Aaron Starkman relates how a group of Jews were forced to unroll copies of the Torah onto the ground and then urinate on them, with a Nazi officer saying, "Where is your God?  He does nothing."

This officer's line of thought, as I understand it, goes something like this.  If God exists, He would be so offended by this insult to Him and His chosen people that he would retaliate immediately against the perpetrators.  There is no retaliation, here we all still are.  It therefore follows that there is no God.

There are many things wrong with this logic, for the moment I wish to pick up on only one point.  In an inversion of Biblical thought, this officer is effectively creating God in His own image.  He, the officer, would be offended by this insult, he, the officer, would respond immediately, so therefore, the officer appears to think, God surely would also.

But the Bible teaches us (2 Peter 3:8b) that, "With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day."  God does not operate according to our time scales, He is not limited by time as we are.  And there are a number of Biblical accounts in which people have to wait considerable lengths of time for God's will to take effect.  Examples of this would include: Abraham and Sarah waiting for Isaac to be born, Hannah waiting for Samuel to be born, Simeon waiting for Jesus Christ to be presented at the temple, St Paul going into purdah (if that's the right word) for 3 years after becoming  Christian before his public ministry.

So, we live in a technological age in which amazing things are possible quite beyond what I could have imagined when I was a child.  Against this, timeless truths still prevail about the need for hard work to accomplish high levels of proficiency in any given area, with Christians serving our Almighty God who is not bound by human timescales, needs and wants, still less the drive for instant gratification to have what we want when we want it.  How to live as Christians in this situation?  Would be grateful to hear, either through a response to this blog or by private message, what you think.

(PS: it won't surprise you my readers, particularly those in the UK, that I've been thinking a good bit about our domestic political situation recently. More to come soon, meanwhile, my current summary: I think that future historians will look very kindly at Mrs Theresa May's legacy....)

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