A Mathematician’s Lament, Part 1: Introductions

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Welcome to Post #1 of responding to “A Mathematician’s Lament.” If you missed yesterday’s post, this series of posts will be my responses to an article assigned by my calculus teacher. I plan on reading the article one section at a time (a section begins with a large capital letter, like you might see at the beginning of a chapter in a book), and then posting my thoughts (which may be deep and detailed or very, very brief–who knows!). Most sections are fairly short–only about 3 pages long. Part 1 starts on page 1 and ends at the top of page 3. Here’s the link again if you’d like to follow along.

Part 1, I think, is what every paper/article/book usually starts with: some sort of introduction of the topic at hand. In this introduction, Paul Lockhart tries to invoke a sense of sarcasm to his readers by describing worlds where students only learn the mechanics of certain art forms (music and painting) and do not learn by “doing” or hands-on experience. In these worlds, students are expected to master the “behind the scenes” material, like learning to write sheet music or becoming experts at the color wheel. But they don’t actually play music or paint on a blank canvas; it’s just simply too advanced for them. Some parents and teachers wonder why their children and students have no motivation or desire for completing homework. Well, I thought, why would they? With no application to the actual arts, music and painting would become extremely boring in these worlds; writing note after note on staff paper sounds very tedious after such repetition.  With lots and lots of practice, like these students have, anyone could learn to write sheet music or memorize the color wheel, but when they finally get around to actually playing the trumpet or painting a portrait, will it all just click after years and years and years of never applying their background skills? But more importantly, after such boring classes, will they even want to apply their knowledge?

This is where the connection to math comes in. Throughout grade school, and more prominently in high school, math classes are all the same. Get out binder. Take notes. Learn new formula. Wonder when you’ll ever possibly use sine, cosine, and tangent beyond the walls of the math room. Do examples. Complete homework. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Sounds boring, right? I love math, I really do, but the never-changing math routine can become very old after some time. We take all of this math, but when will we really ever use it? When will we be in a situation where we have to apply our math skills and knowledge (beyond basic operations, and if your focused field of study isn’t pinpointed on mathematics)? Shouldn’t math, if it is so immensely important in our society, be somewhat interesting?

That’s what I have for my response to Part 1. I’m hoping to take this slow and steady, so I’ll have posts about other stuff in between these math ones!

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3 responses »

  1. As the teacher that assigned this reading, I can’t really explain how proud I am of you for tackling such a large article in such an intelligent way. This article is very intense, and will question many of the central tenets of your math education. Many of the assignments you do in college will not be graded for points, but will instead just be for the sake of learning about something. (Shouldn’t all things?) I hope this helps model that for you.

    Second, I think the beginning of your analysis is dead on. I’m very proud to have you as a student! Keep up the great writing.

  2. So here is the real question is Mr. Cornally making math more interesting for you? Are you learning more? Is he increasing your love for math? Will you consider a math or math based major in college?

  3. jhuistemurphy- Math is certainly interesting because I am being introduced to concepts and ideas I have never approached before. I won’t deny that it’s challenging and frustrating at points, but I believe that I will appreciate, and benefit from, my calculus class. For your college question–The path I currently foresee myself following will definitely incorporate math, and so, in my mind, this calculus course is an excellent preparation tool before I take on the rigors of college.

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