Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.” The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.
The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such.
Part of the problem is that nobody has the faintest idea what it is that mathematicians do … there is no question that if the world had to be divided into the “poetic dreamers” and the “rational thinkers” most people would place mathematicians in the latter category.
Nevertheless, the fact is that there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics. It is every bit as mind blowing as cosmology or physics (mathematicians conceived of black holes long before astronomers actually found any), and allows more freedom of expression than poetry, art, or music (which depend heavily on properties of the physical universe). Mathematics is the purest of the arts, as well as the most misunderstood. So let me try to explain what mathematics is, and what mathematicians do. I can hardly do better than to begin with G.H. Hardy’s excellent description:
A mathematician, like a painter or poet,
is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than
theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.
For example, if I’m in the mood to think about shapes— and I often am— I might imagine a triangle inside a rectangular box.
I wonder how much of the box the triangle takes up? Two-thirds maybe? The important thing to understand is that I’m not talking about this drawing of a triangle in a box. Nor am I talking about some metal triangle forming part of a girder system for a bridge. There’s no ulterior practical purpose here. I’m just playing. That’s what math is— wondering, playing, amusing yourself with your imagination. For one thing, the question of how much of the box the triangle takes up doesn’t even make any sense for real, physical objects. Even the most carefully made physical triangle is still a hopelessly complicated collection of jiggling atoms; it changes its size from one minute to the next. That is, unless you want to talk about some sort of approximate measurements. Well, that’s where the aesthetic comes in. That’s just not simple, and consequently it is an ugly question which depends on all sorts of real-world details. Let’s leave that to the scientists. The mathematical question is about an imaginary triangle inside an imaginary box. The edges are perfect because I want them to be— that is the sort of object I prefer to think about. This is a major theme in mathematics: things are what you want them to be. You have endless choices; there is no reality to get in your way.
On the other hand, once you have made your choices (for example I might choose to make my triangle symmetrical, or not) then your new creations do what they do, whether you like it or not. This is the amazing thing about making imaginary patterns: they talk back! The triangle takes up a certain amount of its box, and I don’t have any control over what that amount is. There is a number out there, maybe it’s two-thirds, maybe it isn’t, but I don’t get to say what it is. I have to find out what it is.
“The area of a triangle is equal to one-half its base times its height.” Students are asked to memorize this formula and then “apply” it over and over in the “exercises.” Gone is the thrill, the joy, even the pain and frustration of the creative act. There is not even a problem anymore. The question has been asked and answered at the same time— there is nothing left for the student to do.
Now let me be clear about what I’m objecting to. It’s not about formulas, or memorizing interesting facts. That’s fine in context, and has its place just as learning a vocabulary does— it helps you to create richer, more nuanced works of art. But it’s not the fact that triangles take up half their box that matters. What matters is the beautiful idea of chopping it with the line, and how that might inspire other beautiful ideas and lead to creative breakthroughs in other problems— something a mere statement of fact can never give you.
In place of discovery and exploration, we have rules and regulations. We never hear a student saying, “I wanted to see if it could make any sense to raise a number to a negative power, and I found that you get a really neat pattern if you choose it to mean the reciprocal.” Instead we have teachers and textbooks presenting the “negative exponent rule” as a fait d’accompli with no mention of the aesthetics behind this choice, or even that it is a choice.
Another example is the training of students to express information in an unnecessarily complicated form, merely because at some distant future period it will have meaning. Does any middle school algebra teacher have the slightest clue why he is asking his students to rephrase “the number x lies between three and seven” as |x – 5| < 2 ? Do these hopelessly inept textbook authors really believe they are helping students by preparing them for a possible day, years hence, when they might be operating within the context of a higher-dimensional geometry or an abstract metric space? I doubt it. I expect they are simply copying each other decade after decade, maybe changing the fonts or the highlight colors, and beaming with pride when an school system adopts their book, and becomes their unwitting accomplice.
Now there is a place for formal proof in mathematics, no question. But that place is not a student’s first introduction to mathematical argument. At least let people get familiar with some mathematical objects, and learn what to expect from them, before you start formalizing everything. Rigorous formal proof only becomes important when there is a crisis— when you discover that your imaginary objects behave in a counterintuitive way; when there is a paradox of some kind. But such excessive preventative hygiene is completely unnecessary here — nobody’s gotten sick yet!
Even the traditional way in which definitions are presented is a lie. In an effort to create an illusion of “clarity” before embarking on the typical cascade of propositions and theorems, a set of definitions are provided so that statements and their proofs can be made as succinct as possible. On the surface this seems fairly innocuous; why not make some abbreviations so that things can be said more economically? The problem is that definitions matter. They come from aesthetic decisions about what distinctions you as an artist consider important. And they are problem-generated. To make a definition is to highlight and call attention to a feature or structural property. Historically this comes out of working on a problem, not as a prelude to it.
The point is you don’t start with definitions, you start with problems. Nobody ever had an idea of a number being “irrational” until Pythagoras attempted to measure the diagonal of a square and discovered that it could not be represented as a fraction.
English teachers know that spelling and pronunciation are best learned in a context of reading and writing. History teachers know that names and dates are uninteresting when removed from the unfolding backstory of events. Why does mathematics education remain stuck in the nineteenth century? Compare your own experience of learning algebra with Bertrand Russell’s recollection:
“I was made to learn by heart: ‘The square of the sum of two numbers is equal to the sum of their squares increased by twice their product.’ I had not the vaguest idea what this meant and when I could not remember the words, my tutor threw the book at my head, which did not stimulate my intellect in any way.”
Are things really any different today?