This is a post in response to Penelope Trunk’s post on not teaching Maths, as well as the many, many comments on the blog. It made me sad. It made me think. And it reinforced for me the idea that the maths taught in school is – the wrong maths.
It’s a discussion that you will hear whenever you get a group of mathematicians together. The things that inspire, that make you go ‘wow!’ are the things you never see in school.
Imagine for a moment that learning english was taught only through reading ‘Terms and Conditions on Contracts‘. Worthy and useful, perhaps. But you never saw poetry. There was no mention of Shakespere, and the idea of a story or novel was incomprehensible to your teachers. Who would ‘love’ english after 13 years of that? Why would you want to know how to read?
Well that’s math’s education in school. At least from the perspective of a mathematician. Math’s education is school stops sometime in the 19th Century. Truly. None of the maths of the last 200 years even gets a mention. If you actually can cope with all the ‘drill and kill‘ and learn everything they teach in school, you come out as a not quite well-prepared Victorian gentleman or lady.
And even then, the reason why this maths was invented is left out. There’s no talk about why maths is important for ballistics, and how this figured into the accuracy of artillery in the Napoleonic wars. There’s no mention of the great math’s flowering in the Abbasid Calliphate, and the need for the Caliph to be able to make his great empire function that lead to the invention of al-gabr. The history of mathematics has been expunged! The mathematicians have been expunged! Want to hear a great story about a mathematician? Read up about Sophie Germain, and how she saved the life of Carl Friederich Gauss. Or about how Evariste Galois created an entire branch of mathematics the night before a duel to the death in pre-revolutionary France. Passion. Creativity. Logic. Reason. All intertwined.
But even if maths in school ignored everything about the why this maths was created, and the how and the who, I find it terrible that it also leaves…the maths out of maths education.
How can I say that? (Read this post on why school maths is the wrong maths.) Maths can be thought of as a way of looking at the world. Like a different language, it changes the way you look at everything. It is not just or even mostly the mechanical act of calculation, though that has it’s place. (And there’s always the well worn joke about a group of mathematicians all unable to add up a bill at a restaurant…).
What maths do I want my kids to know? I want them to look at the sky, and the trees and see maths in nature. I want them to use a computer and see maths. I want them to contemplate the infinite (or at least the enourmous!), and the infintesimal. I want them to wander city streets and see maths. I want them to cross a creek and think of maths. I want them to stare at the night sky and think maths. I want to blow their minds with the thought of strange attractors, think about flows of stone under their feet, or plasma in the sun. I want them to understand how maths makes it safe to buy stuff from amazon. This is the maths that is left out of school.
This is the poetry of mathematics. The ideas are wonderful – understanding them is even better – cool, amazing and humbling.
Mathematics is needed for science, and economics, and many many other things. But mathematics IS NOT science, or economics. It is in many ways, a search for truth. It is a creation of the human mind. Just like poetry. And just like poetry, we can expand what it means to be human through looking at the world in this way.
We may not all be poets, but we can appreciate a good poem, or a dirty limerick. We may not all be mathematicians, but we should all be able to appreciate the beauty of mathematics.
And that is the maths that I want my kids to live. Every day.
“To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.“