paul lockhart: a mathematician’s lament

I would admit upfront my biases (or reflections on my personal experiences, if you will).

I am of the opinion that almost all Christian missionary schools (or for that matter, schools belonging to any other denomination or abomination that is centrally organized) are really a bad idea, at best. And, of course, I must have gotten ‘educated’ at a particularly bad missionary school – where, how actually Christ lived (by example and with compassion) was far removed from the context of the new testamentish conversion fervour with which the school was run. In fact, Jesus would have actually run away from such pretentious schools which seek to belittle other cultures, faiths and individuals. I also learned that, while these schools did all the damage they could with gay abandon, they were also getting considerable financial support /  aid  from the Government, to boot! This should have been in addition to the foreign funding that they routinely got to harvest more souls.

Till that time, I thought – only white Europeans were contemptuous of the black and brown natives & were endlessly condescending (‘The whiteman’s burden’). But it was with a sense of shock that I realized that a few of our own folks were belittling our own folks! It was a good 5 years later (after I finished my 10th std) that I got to know about the great TB Macaulay and allied colonial machinations. Anyway…

The mathematics that was ‘taught’ in my school was actually really silly – but then our textbooks were also silly so I cannot blame the teachers or the school. But I still recall with pleasure, the fact that a few of my classmates and I would huddle together in the back benches and feverishly solve the math text (of Tamilnadu and NCERT books) of the next few academic years and this was lovely. Of course whenever we were unfortunate enough to get caught in the act of not sticking to the 7th standard book by our math teacher (‘kanakku master’), our ears were boxed and our hides were tanned… But doing interesting math sums was an exhilarating idea, even though the canings were very painful. And ah, sometimes someone would bring Martin Gardnerish puzzles and solving them would be heavenly. Remembrance of things past and passé, what else…

Coming from this slightly shady background and having an endless angst about the way Science, Math, History etc etc are handled in most schools, I am convinced that the children have to get exposed to math (and of course every other ‘subject’) in the loveliest possible, fascinating and connection-rich way. I have faith in the children that they would instinctively gravitate towards the best things in life (given a set of meaningful choices) and may be at least some of the nammashaale erdkinder will continue to find math beautiful, well into their adulthoods… The hope!

And so, it was with pleasure that I got this document from Sunder & Sonati and read it again! I recall that this document was doing the rounds in 2003 or thereabouts on Internet math forums and I had chanced upon it earlier over IRC.  It was lovely. But I thought it was mainly a diatribe against US schooling system. And, now I reread it and it continues to be lovely and a very well formed document – and I think it is applicable to the most of the whole world, except perhaps the Russian schools…

Some extracts from the text:

“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.”

“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.”

chuckle, chuckle…

Please read the EXCELLENT document of Paul Lockhart:  ‘A Mathematician’s Lament’ off the Mathematical Association of America website:

Enjoy! It is well worth the investment…

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