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Measuring value of university contingency - Western Alumni
Spring 2013
Measuring value of university contingency

by Paul Wells, BA'89

Tutoring my favourite nine-year-old, I was surprised at how much trouble he was having with fractions. This is a smart kid with a good number sense, but he was flummoxed as he tried to grasp the applications of halves, quarters and eighths. I went through the stages of tutor grief — denial, anger, bargaining — before I began to realize what the problem was. Fractions represent a huge advance over everything a child has learned up to then, because they represent a relation, not an absolute. No wonder it’s a big moment

[JCK: Dec. 21 2010 | Forbes | Rich Karlgaard. Success is often a
matter of getting the ratios right. Business and investing success is
hardly possible without understanding ratios. Knowing the numbers is
important. But knowing the numbers in relation to other numbers will
make you a millionaire. You will see anomalies that others miss.]

...... the notion of fraction's adaptability is what makes it so powerful. Fractions lead you by a short road to algebra and to a Pandora’s box of tools for finding the value of unknown quantities....A few years ago I spent a month at Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, trying to understand the work of the physicists there. Most of it went right over my head, but once in a while I’d see some genius write symbols above and below a division line, cross it with symbols in a neighbouring fraction, simplify and solve, and I would realize that I was watching another application of tools that became available to that genius,.....At some point in almost every field you move, not without struggle, from the absolute to the contingent. In the first books you read — I’m talking little kids here — a bird is just a bird. Eventually you graduate to metaphor, and now a bird can be a stand-in for hope or freedom or death. In law you move past different readings of a statute to competing notions of the good or just. In music, harmonies become richer, relations among notes more open to interpretation, until the very notion of harmony becomes something a composer can retain or reject according to taste and need. And then you listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and you wonder whether any of this change can be said to represent progress.

If there’s a place in modern society where the notions of relation, proportion and contingency are most frequently encountered and applied, it’s the university.....

Few places are easier to mock for their pretentiousness. (Why are campus politics so vicious? Because, Henry Kissinger said, the stakes are so low.) But at universities people are at least a little likelier, on average, to question their assumptions, to be prepared to defend or discard them, than in the rest of the world. That’s the hope, anyway.

So it’s disappointing, while unsurprising, that these bastions of relativism..have spent so much time marketing themselves as purveyors of sure value.
campus_politics  Colleges_&_Universities  contingency  mathematics  messiness  Paul_Wells  Perimeter_Institute  proportionality  ratios  relationships  tools 
april 2017 by jerryking
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