This is math

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I studied math in college because I didn’t believe it. Never could understand how or why someone would come up with the stuff we were being teached. Thanks to some innate verbal ability and motherly discipline, I was thankfully “good” at it though, good enough to realize that what we were “learning” was nothing but mindless regurgitation.

Now science has always been very important to me and it has oddly always seemed the most obvious thing in the world. Not that I was or am a scientific genius, it just that it’s always seemed natural and straightforward. (Perhaps the most confusing thing was realizing that “the scientific method” was really just a fancy, overformalized way for saying: try stuff out.) The one thing in it that befuddled me completely though was math, which is supposed to be science’s cornerstone. And I couldn’t just go out into the world with such an unknown.

After 2.5 wonderful years at CIMAT, I believed math and dropped out to pursue web dreams, which at bottom I always knew I’d end up pursuing. There was, however, some time in that period when I seriously considered becoming a mathematician and I still long for math most days (if only I weren’t so monomaniacal). In a couple of years, I not only came to believe math, I fell madly in love with it.

I had never read anything that gave voice to my new love (and my new hate at being mathematically abused as a child!) and explained it so clearly until I stumbled on Paul Lockhart’s fantastic Mathematician Lament. Below some choice quotes from it. I went a bit overboard but this is one marvelous, longish (25 pages) essay and it spoke to me. It’s been a long time since I posted a quote collage here and I still don’t know if they’re helpful to anyone but I just love crafting them. Bear with me.

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.

…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.
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. So we get to play and imagine whatever we want and make patterns and ask questions about them. But how do we answer these questions? It’s not at all like science. There’s no experiment I can do with test tubes and equipment and whatnot that will tell me the truth about a figment of my imagination. The only way to get at the truth about our imaginations is to use our imaginations, and that is hard work.
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.
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.
SIMPLICIO: Yes, but before you can write your own poems you need to learn the alphabet. The process has to begin somewhere. You have to walk before you can run. SALVIATI: No, you have to have something you want to run toward. Children can write poems and stories as they learn to read and write. A piece of writing by a six-year-old is a wonderful thing, and the spelling and punctuation errors don’t make it less so. Even very young children can invent songs, and they haven’t a clue what key it is in or what type of meter they are using.
The main problem with school mathematics is that there are no problems. Oh, I know what passes for problems in math classes, these insipid “exercises.” “Here is a type of problem. Here is how to solve it. Yes it will be on the test. Do exercises 1-35 odd for homework.” What a sad way to learn mathematics: to be a trained chimpanzee. But a problem, a genuine honest-to-goodness natural human question — that’s another thing. How long is the diagonal of a cube? Do prime numbers keep going on forever? Is infinity a number? How many ways can I symmetrically tile a surface? The history of mathematics is the history of mankind’s engagement with questions like these, not the mindless regurgitation of formulas and algorithms (together with contrived exercises designed to make use of them).
This is what a piece of mathematics looks and feels like. That little narrative is an example of the mathematician’s art: asking simple and elegant questions about our imaginary creations, and crafting satisfying and beautiful explanations. There is really nothing else quite like this realm of pure idea; it’s fascinating, it’s fun, and it’s free! Now where did this idea of mine come from? How did I know to draw that line? How does a painter know where to put his brush? Inspiration, experience, trial and error, dumb luck. That’s the art of it, creating these beautiful little poems of thought, these sonnets of pure reason. There is something so wonderfully transformational about this art form. The relationship between the triangle and the rectangle was a mystery, and then that one little line made it obvious. I couldn’t see, and then all of a sudden I could. Somehow, I was able to create a profound simple beauty out of nothing, and change myself in the process. Isn’t that what art is all about?
By concentrating on what, and leaving out why, mathematics is reduced to an empty shell. The art is not in the “truth” but in the explanation, the argument. It is the argument itself which gives the truth its context, and determines what is really being said and meant. Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity — to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs — you deny them mathematics itself. So no, I’m not complaining about the presence of facts and formulas in our mathematics classes, I’m complaining about the lack of mathematics in our mathematics classes.
All this fussing and primping about which “topics” should be taught in what order, or the use of this notation instead of that notation, or which make and model of calculator to use, for god’s sake — it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic! Mathematics is the music of reason. To do mathematics is to engage in an act of discovery and conjecture, intuition and inspiration; to be in a state of confusion — not because it makes no sense to you, but because you gave it sense and you still don’t understand what your creation is up to; to have a breakthrough idea; to be frustrated as an artist; to be awed and overwhelmed by an almost painful beauty; to be alive, damn it. Remove this from mathematics and you can have all the conferences you like; it won’t matter. Operate all you want, doctors: your patient is already dead.
Mathematics is an art, and art should be taught by working artists, or if not, at least by people who appreciate the art form and can recognize it when they see it. It is not necessary that you learn music from a professional composer, but would you want yourself or your child to be taught by someone who doesn’t even play an instrument, and has never listened to a piece of music in their lives? Would you accept as an art teacher someone who has never picked up a pencil or stepped foot in a museum? Why is it that we accept math teachers who have never produced an original piece of mathematics, know nothing of the history and philosophy of the subject, nothing about recent developments, nothing in fact beyond what they are expected to present to their unfortunate students? What kind of a teacher is that? How can someone teach something that they themselves don’t do? I can’t dance, and consequently I would never presume to think that I could teach a dance class (I could try, but it wouldn’t be pretty). The difference is I know I can’t dance. I don’t have anyone telling me I’m good at dancing just because I know a bunch of dance words. Now I’m not saying that math teachers need to be professional mathematicians — far from it. But shouldn’t they at least understand what mathematics is, be good at it, and enjoy doing it?
[Students] never had an engaging problem to think about, to be frustrated by, and to create in them the desire for technique or method.
So mathematicians sit around making patterns of ideas. What sort of patterns? What sort of ideas? Ideas about the rhinoceros? No, those we leave to the biologists. Ideas about language and culture? No, not usually. These things are all far too complicated for most mathematicians’ taste. If there is anything like a unifying aesthetic principle in mathematics, it is this: simple is beautiful. Mathematicians enjoy thinking about the simplest possible things, and the simplest possible things are imaginary.
SIMPLICIO: But surely we want all of our students to learn a basic set of facts and skills. That’s what a curriculum is for, and that’s why it is so uniform — there are certain timeless, cold hard facts we need our students to know: one plus one is two, and the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. These are not opinions, or mushy artistic feelings. SALVIATI: On the contrary. Mathematical structures, useful or not, are invented and developed within a problem context, and derive their meaning from that context. Sometimes we want one plus one to equal zero (as in so-called ‘mod 2’ arithmetic) and on the surface of a sphere the angles of a triangle add up to more than 180 degrees. There are no “facts” per se; everything is relative and relational. It is the story that matters, not just the ending.
SIMPLICIO: I don’t think that’s very fair. Surely teaching methods have improved since then. SALVIATI: You mean training methods. Teaching is 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?
SIMPLICIO: But aren’t you asking an awful lot from our math teachers? You expect them to provide individual attention to dozens of students, guiding them on their own paths toward discovery and enlightenment, and to be up on recent mathematical history as well? SALVIATI: Do you expect your art teacher to be able to give you individualized, knowledgeable advice about your painting? Do you expect her to know anything about the last three hundred years of art history? But seriously, I don’t expect anything of the kind, I only wish it were so.
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! Of course if a logical crisis should arise at some point, then obviously it should be investigated, and the argument made more clear, but that process can be carried out intuitively and informally as well. In fact it is the soul of mathematics to carry out such a dialogue with one’s own proof. So not only are most kids utterly confused by this pedantry — nothing is more mystifying than a proof of the obvious — but even those few whose intuition remains intact must then retranslate their excellent, beautiful ideas back into this absurd hieroglyphic framework in order for their teacher to call it “correct.” The teacher then flatters himself that he is somehow sharpening his students’ minds.
The problem with the standard geometry curriculum is that the private, personal experience of being a struggling artist has virtually been eliminated. The art of proof has been replaced by a rigid step-by step pattern of uninspired formal deductions. The textbook presents a set of definitions, theorems, and proofs, the teacher copies them onto the blackboard, and the students copy them into their notebooks. They are then asked to mimic them in the exercises. Those that catch on to the pattern quickly are the “good” students. The result is that the student becomes a passive participant in the creative act. Students are making statements to fit a preexisting proof-pattern, not because they mean them. They are being trained to ape arguments, not to intend them. So not only do they have no idea what their teacher is saying, they have no idea what they themselves are saying.
SIMPLICIO: But surely there is some body of mathematical facts of which an educated person should be cognizant. SALVIATI: Yes, the most important of which is that mathematics is an art form done by human beings for pleasure!

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