What math is about

Yesterday, the New York Times published some replies to a previous op-ed page article dealing with teaching mathematics through real-life applications only (see my previous post). I quote two such typical replies.

To the Editor:

Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford argue that high school math curriculums should include more real-life applications so that students will be better prepared for 21st-century careers. I disagree.

Mathematics, like literature, music, science and any other subject worth studying, should be taught and learned for its own sake. Just as we teach students the beauty of poetry, we should teach students the beauty of mathematics — a beauty that does not depend on calculating a gear ratio or estimating a marginal profit.

If we try to make math curriculums “relevant” to daily life, we will end up teaching students a series of disconnected formulas. Another generation will grow up thinking of mathematics as a mess of scary symbols, something with no inherent logic, best learned by memorization.

Oakland, Calif., Aug. 25, 2011

To the Editor:

You do not study mathematics because it helps you build a bridge. You study mathematics because it is the poetry of the universe. Its beauty transcends mere things.

Orono, Me., Aug. 25, 2011

The writer is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Maine

I feel better now – I am not alone seeing that teaching math is not only about standards, not  about recipes for specific types of problems, but it is also about the gestalt of the thing – the universality and beauty of this subject. We ought to find the time in our busy teaching days and take a moment or two and tell the kids that we, the hopefully respected adults,  see a beauty in the subject, that doing math is fun, that there is pleasure in thinking. Who knows? May be the message will stick with a few.


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