Arithmetic and the Common Man.

Classical education usually excluded the knowledge of such mundane matters like numerical literacy. While the knowledge of sacred and classical texts were considered to be the epitome of knowledge, the knowledge of arithmetic was not part of the education of the upper classes, not in the early modern period in Europe, nor in India. I was reading a very interesting article about this the other day and it struck me that while the traders and businessmen obviously had to have a clear knowledge of counting and calculating, the upper classes considered this knowledge below their dignity and refrained from learning these profane arts. In fact the knowledge of arithmetic was somewhat looked down upon even in Shakespearian times and as Iago says scornfully in Othello: “great arithmetician”. Spoken about Cassio it is a term of denigration.
In early modern Britain the problem was compounded by the fact that Roman numerals were just being replaced by Arabic ones and this confused people no end. The Arabic numerals were more practical and useful, but Roman numerals were what had been used for literally more than a thousand years and this changeover could not have been easy.
However arithmetic was essential in the matters of State. The calculation of tax dues and land rents were made according to fairly complex rules and this needed calculations. The traders and administrators needed to know this, but the landlords did not. This was what made the munshi in India indispensible to the landlord and the munshi always took advantage to make money on the side. This probably was the basis of many a trading fortune!
Coming back to Britain, another problem that was faced was the crazy methods of calculation. When we were kids we knew that 20 shilling s made a pound and 12 pennies made a shilling.( or was it six?) Because it was the French who introduced the metric system, British contrariness ensured that it was well into the second half of the twentieth century before the metric system came to Britain despite its proven advantages. Not only this, they had a baker’s dozen (13), a long hundred (120) through this varied depending on the type of goods it referred to and so on.
The knowledge of addition was to some extent widespread, but subtraction. Multiplication and division apparently led to massive difficulties and many a schoolboy drowned in its difficulties. As One of Richmal Compton’s characters used to say “Latin is a language,
Dead as dead can be.
It killed the Ancient Romans
and now it’s killing me”,
so did schoolboys of those days sang .
“Multiplication is mie vexation
Division is quite as bad.
The Golden Rule is mie stumbling-stool
And Practice makes me mad,”
The onset of hand held calculators of course has put an end to such misery and today nobody (even tradesmen) do not seem to add up even 2+2 in their heads. But it is instructive to remember that there were times when such calculations were esoteric mental exercises, meant for only specialists.


chris said…
I am currently a MPH student living in Canada and recently did a research trip in India.

I am writing a paper on health care reform in India. I was interested in contacting you for your thoughts.


Chris Aloia
akdcts said…
chris, you are welcome to email me

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