A wonderful, powerful exposition on what mathematics really is, and a scathing, unfortunately accurate criticism of the way its being taught today (Linked from the Mathematical Association of America):

A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart.

Just to give you a taste of the essay:

He opens by superimposing the state of mathematical education on music and art:

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. …

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a painter has just awakened from a similar nightmare…

I was surprised to find myself in a regular school classroom— no easels, no tubes of paint. “Oh we don’t actually apply paint until high school,” I was told by the students. “In seventh grade we mostly study colors and applicators.” They showed me a worksheet. On one side were swatches of color with blank spaces next to them. They were told to write in the names.

And then launches his attack:

Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

Ouch! Seems a little harsh to me (maybe I had better teachers), but when one realizes his passion for mathematics and his views about math as and art, one can understand where he’s coming from:

A piece of mathematics is like a poem, and we can ask if it satisfies our aesthetic criteria: Is this argument sound? Does it make sense? Is it simple and elegant? Does it get me closer to the heart of the matter?

Why don’t we want our children to learn to do mathematics? … I think it’s simply that we as a culture don’t know what mathematics is. The impression we are given is of something very cold and highly technical, that no one could possibly understand— a self-fulfilling prophesy if there ever was one. …

It would be bad enough if the culture were merely ignorant of mathematics, but what is far worse is that people actually think they do know what math is about— and are apparently under the gross misconception that mathematics is somehow useful to society!…

Everyone knows that poetry and music are for pure enjoyment and for uplifting and ennobling the human spirit (hence their virtual elimination from the public school curriculum) but no, math is

important.

Delightfully italicised! What follows is a Galileo style dialogue:

SIMPLICIO: Are you really trying to claim that mathematics offers no useful or practical applications to society?

SALVIATI: Of course not. I’m merely suggesting that just because something happens to have practical consequences, doesn’t mean that’s what it is about. Music can lead armies into battle, but that’s not why people write symphonies. Michelangelo decorated a ceiling, but I’m sure he had loftier things on his mind.…

SIMPLICIO: But don’t you think that if math class were made more like art class that a lot of kids just wouldn’t learn anything?

SALVIATI: They’re not learning anything now! Better to not have math classes at all than to do what is currently being done. At least some people might have a chance to discover something beautiful on their own.

SIMPLICIO: So you would remove mathematics from the school curriculum?

SALVIATI: The mathematics has already been removed! The only question is what to do with the vapid, hollow shell that remains. Of course I would prefer to replace it with an active and joyful engagement with mathematical ideas.

SIMPLICIO: But how many math teachers know enough about their subject to teach it that way?

SALVIATI: Very few. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg……

SIMPLICIO: But isn’t math different? Isn’t math a language of its own, with all sorts of symbols that have to be learned before you can use it?

SALVIATI: Not at all. Mathematics is not a language, it’s an adventure. Do musicians “speak another language” simply because they choose to abbreviate their ideas with little black dots? If so, it’s no obstacle to the toddler and her song. Yes, a certain amount of mathematical shorthand has evolved over the centuries, but it is in no way essential.Most mathematics is done with a friend over a cup of coffee, with a diagram scribbled on a napkin. Mathematics is and always has been about ideas, and a valuable idea transcends the symbols with which you choose to represent it.

As Gauss once remarked, “What we need are notions, not notations.”

The criticism isn’t limited to math education. Current pedagogical methods itself are brought into question.

SIMPLICIO: I don’t think that’s very fair. Surely teaching methods have improved since then.

SALVIATI: You meantrainingmethods.Teachingis a messy human relationship; it does not require a method. Or rather I should say, if you need a method you’re probably not a very good teacher. If you don’t have enough of a feeling for your subject to be able to talk about it in your own voice, in a natural and spontaneous way, how well could you understand it?

And he calls High School Geometry the instrument of the devil:

All metaphor aside, geometry class is by far the most mentally and emotionally destructive component of the entire K-12 mathematics curriculum. Other math courses may hide the beautiful bird, or put it in a cage, but in geometry class it is openly and cruelly tortured. (Apparently I am incapable of putting all metaphor aside.)

What is happening is the systematic undermining of the student’s intuition. A proof, that is, a mathematical argument, is a work of fiction, a poem. Its goal is to satisfy. A beautiful proof should explain, and it should explain clearly, deeply, and elegantly. A well-written, well-crafted argument should feel like a splash of cool water, and be a beacon of light— it should refresh the spirit and illuminate the mind. And it should be

charming.There is nothing charming about what passes for proof in geometry class. Students are presented a rigid and dogmatic format in which their so-called “proofs” are to be conducted— a format as unnecessary and inappropriate as insisting that children who wish to plant a garden refer to their flowers by genus and species.

The obvious objection is raised, and quelled:

SIMPLICIO: Now hold on a minute. I don’t know about you, but I actually enjoyed my high school geometry class. I liked the structure, and I enjoyed working within the rigid proof format.

SALVIATI: I’m sure you did. You probably even got to work on some nice problems occasionally. Lot’s of people enjoy geometry class (although lots more hate it). But this is not a point in favor of the current regime. Rather, it is powerful testimony to the allure of mathematics itself. It’s hard to completely ruin something so beautiful; even this faint shadow of mathematics can still be engaging and satisfying.

He concludes by presenting “the first ever *completely honest* course catalog for K-12 mathematics”:

LOWER SCHOOL MATH. The indoctrination begins. Students learn that mathematics is not something you do, but something that is done to you. … Multiplication tables are stressed, as are parents, teachers, and the kids themselves. …

MIDDLE SCHOOL MATH. Students are taught to view mathematics as a set of procedures, akin to religious rites, which are eternal and set in stone. The holy tablets, or “Math Books,” are handed out, and the students learn to address the church elders as “they” (as in “What do they want here? Do they want me to divide?”) …

ALGEBRA I. So as not to waste valuable time thinking about numbers and their patterns, this course instead focuses on symbols and rules for their manipulation. The smooth narrative thread that leads from ancient Mesopotamian tablet problems to the high art of the Renaissance algebraists is discarded in favor of a disturbingly fractured, post-modern retelling with no characters, plot, or theme. … Students must also memorize the quadratic formula for some reason.

GEOMETRY. Isolated from the rest of the curriculum, this course will raise the hopes of students who wish to engage in meaningful mathematical activity, and then dash them. … This goal of this course is to eradicate any last remaining vestiges of natural mathematical intuition, in preparation for Algebra II.

ALGEBRA II. The subject of this course is the unmotivated and inappropriate use of coordinate geometry. … Students will learn to rewrite quadratic forms in a variety of standard formats for no reason whatsoever. Exponential and logarithmic functions are also introduced in Algebra II, despite not being algebraic objects, simply because they have to be stuck in somewhere, apparently…. Why Geometry occurs in between Algebra I and its sequel remains a mystery.

TRIGONOMETRY. Two weeks of content are stretched to semester length by masturbatory definitional runarounds. Truly interesting and beautiful phenomena, such as the way the sides of a triangle depend on its angles, will be given the same emphasis as irrelevant abbreviations and obsolete notational conventions, in order to prevent students from forming any clear idea as to what the subject is about. … Calculator required, so as to further blur these issues.

PRE-CALCULUS. A senseless bouillabaisse of disconnected topics. … As the name suggests, this course prepares the student for Calculus, where the final phase in the systematic obfuscation of any natural ideas related to shape and motion will be completed.

CALCULUS. This course will explore the mathematics of motion, and the best ways to bury it under a mountain of unnecessary formalism. … To be taken again in college, verbatim.

…

And there you have it. A complete prescription for permanently disabling young minds— a proven cure for curiosity. What have they done to mathematics!

There is such breathtaking depth and heartbreaking beauty in this ancient art form. How ironic that people dismiss mathematics as the antithesis of creativity. They are missing out on an art form older than any book, more profound than any poem, and more abstract than any abstract. And it is

schoolthat has done this! What a sad endless cycle of innocent teachers inflicting damage upon innocent students. We could all be having so much more fun.

Indeed! A truly delightful and inspirational read! All teachers of mathematics should read this. It would also do non-mathematics teachers some good.

(A really long post, but I couldn’t help it. It was too enjoyable. Just be thankful I didn’t cut-and-paste the entire essay into my post…)

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