Mathematics and national success

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Dwyer Astaphan is a lawyer and former St Kitts-Nevis Minister of National Security and Tourism

By G. A. Dwyer Astaphan

The countries of the world are ranked on the United Nations Human Development Index using criteria such as life expectancy, the quality of life, the standard of education, etc., to determine the level of all-round success of each country. There is another list, put out by Transparency International and other sources, which indicates the least corrupt countries in the world.

There’s also a list of the world’s best-governed countries. And finally, there is a list of the top countries in the world in terms of primary and secondary school performances in mathematics, science and reading.

Fifteen countries appear prominently on all four lists above. They are Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland, Norway, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Belgium, Japan, and the Netherlands. And I’ll add Taiwan, because it’s on three of the Lists and would be on all four were it not for the fact that it is not a member of the United Nations and so cannot be on the UN’s Human Development Index Ranking. So we’ll say that there are 16 countries on the four lists.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that these 16 countries have made all four lists? Is it a coincidence that countries which are ranked to be among the best governed and the least corrupt, and enjoy the highest levels of human development, also have the best scores at primary and secondary school levels in mathematics, science and reading?

Let’s see.

What does mathematics do? It helps us to think analytically and critically, to conceptualize, to be exact, to reason and to be logical; it helps us to be intellectually disciplined; it trains our minds to solve problems; it gives us the confidence to ask questions, to challenge; and it is critical to learning, whether by using its principles or by using the intellectual discipline and the critical and creative thinking that we get from it.

Mathematics is the cornerstone of physical, social, economic and national development. It enables us to choose and achieve a better individual and collective destiny.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, it was a basket case, with unacceptably high levels of poverty, unemployment and crime, poor education and health standards, etc. Its leaders immediately introduced robust education, health, housing, poverty alleviation and crime reduction policies and programs.

Fortunately, they had a practical, strong and visionary leader in Lee Kuan Yew who, together with his team, took deliberate steps: (i)to make the public sector professional, efficient and accountable; (ii) to control corruption; (iii) to revolutionize the education system; and (iv) to learn from other countries.

The education system was tailored to develop a solid and balanced foundation in young Singaporeans, emphasizing the critical importance of mathematics, the sciences and reading.

With that and the other priority measures, Singapore rose from a per capita GDP of less than US$1,000 in the 1960s to US$52,962 in 2016. But, very importantly, and beyond the  GDP and other economic data, Singapore catapulted itself into global prominence as a state and a society to be respected.

Ireland is another example. It too was on the ropes. Around the 1970s, education was given top priority. And in quick time, things began to change for the better.

In Finland, you cannot teach anybody’s child unless you have a master’s degree in education, and you possess certain other academic, technical and personal qualifications. And teachers are well paid and revered.

Likewise, the other countries making up the successful 16 all have an explanation for their all-round excellence: mathematics, science and reading in a highly prioritized education strategy to produce well rounded, balanced citizens.

So, this is no coincidence.

We’ve been an independent nation for 37 years. And while it is true that history had not been kind for centuries prior, the people of this country, like our sister countries in the Caribbean, have had time to assess what we’ve been doing right, what we’ve been doing wrong, and to steer a progressive and sustainable course, aiming to be on those lists.

We can do it.

But I’m told that only 45 percent of our students who enter high school take mathematics at CSEC Level and that only 60 percent of that 45 perent pass. If this information is correct, then less than 30 percent of our children who enter high school have CSEC passes in mathematics.

This is disastrous! And even if 45 percent of the total passed, it would still be disastrous, only a little less so.

For too long we’ve celebrated the successes of the few while creating mass casualties of over-dependent under-performers; and, encouraged and instigated by self-serving politicians over the decades, a sense of entitlement, and a dilemma of under-productivity and social dislocation have set in.

While in this mode, we can never advance and ascend to greatness. And it all ties into our poor record in mathematics and the impetus which mathematics gives us to do better in the sciences, reading and the other subject areas, and in life.

Now about size. A good number of those 16 countries are relatively small, either inland space or population, and in several cases, in both. Ireland, Belgium, Taiwan and the Netherlands are smaller than Cuba, while Hong Kong is about the size of Guadeloupe, and Singapore is about the size of Saint Lucia.

Surely, this must be seen as encouragement for a country that’s just over 100 square miles in area and less than 60,000 in population: our country. And for every other country in our region. And to our advantage, we can take this journey to true development together as a region.

Indeed, more than encouragement, it must be seen by us as an obligation, a responsibility, a duty.

With all of that said, one has to ask if prime minister Timothy Harris and his team have the pragmatism, the strength and the vision to point our Federation in the direction of real greatness? Do regional leaders have what it takes to launch our Caribbean Civilization in a trajectory towards that reachable place of ascendancy?

Perhaps even more importantly, do we, the people of St Kitts and Nevis, and the Caribbean, have the desire, the ambition, the self-respect and the will to go there? Do we have what it takes to choose a better destiny for ourselves and our children?

When the children of Singapore, Finland, Estonia and Denmark, for example, end up more meaningfully and relevantly educated than ours, and when their countries can become the best governed in the world, it’s not because they have more brain than we do. Instead, it’s because their brain is better trained, better exercised, than ours.

It’s about the environment. Theirs is more conducive to personal and national development and progress. A tribute to mathematics and its far-reaching benefits.

It’s a shame that our leaders over the last 40 years (both in St Kitts and Nevis and in CARICOM) have failed to take firm measures to turn around the economic, social and political deficit that has been caused largely by an education system that has not evolved as it should have done.

And the shame is multiplied by the fact that not even COVID 19, deadly game-changer that it is, has opened our eyes to the need to quickly and smartly change our approach to education.

Destiny calls. Duty calls. Kittitians and Nevisians, Caribbean people, it’s our move.

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