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A Mathematician's Lament

Posted: 2010-09-11

NOTE: This essay was transformed into the highly acclaimed book The Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form, with an enthusiastic foreword by Keith Devlin, NPR math columnist.

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where

music education has been made mandatory. "We are helping our students become more

competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world." Educators, school systems, and the state are

put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and

decisions are made-- all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or


Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious

black dots and lines must constitute the "language of music." It is imperative that students

become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it

would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a

thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone

composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until

college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this

language-- to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: "Music class is where we

take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or

transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures

right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely.

One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit

because I had the stems pointing the wrong way."

In their wisdom, educators soon realize that even very young children can be given this kind

of musical instruction. In fact it is considered quite shameful if one's third-grader hasn't

completely memorized his circle of fifths. "I'll have to get my son a music tutor. He simply

won't apply himself to his music homework. He says it's boring. He just sits there staring out

the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs."

In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the

standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in Scales and

Modes, Meter, Harmony, and Counterpoint. "It's a lot for them to learn, but later in college

when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they̢۪ll really appreciate all the work they did in high

school." Of course, not many students actually go on to concentrate in music, so only a few will

ever get to hear the sounds that the black dots represent. Nevertheless, it is important that every

member of society be able to recognize a modulation or a fugal passage, regardless of the fact

that they will never hear one. "To tell you the truth, most students just aren't very good at music.

They are bored in class, their skills are terrible, and their homework is barely legible. Most of

them couldn't care less about how important music is in today's world; they just want to take the

minimum number of music courses and be done with it. I guess there are just music people and

non-music people. I had this one kid, though, man was she sensational! Her sheets were

impeccable-- every note in the right place, perfect calligraphy, sharps, flats, just beautiful.

She's going to make one hell of a musician someday."

Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy

dream. "Of course!" he reassures himself, "No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and

meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its

children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How


Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a painter has just awakened from a similar

nightmare. . .

I was surprised to find myself in a regular school classroom-- no easels, no tubes of paint.

"Oh we don't actually apply paint until high school," I was told by the students. "In seventh

grade we mostly study colors and applicators." They showed me a worksheet. On one side were

swatches of color with blank spaces next to them. They were told to write in the names. "I like

painting," one of them remarked, "they tell me what to do and I do it. It's easy!"

After class I spoke with the teacher. "So your students don't actually do any painting?" I

asked. "Well, next year they take Pre-Paint-by-Numbers. That prepares them for the main

Paint-by-Numbers sequence in high school. So they'll get to use what they've learned here and

apply it to real-life painting situations-- dipping the brush into paint, wiping it off, stuff like that.

Of course we track our students by ability. The really excellent painters-- the ones who know

their colors and brushes backwards and forwards-- they get to the actual painting a little sooner,

and some of them even take the Advanced Placement classes for college credit. But mostly

we're just trying to give these kids a good foundation in what painting is all about, so when they

get out there in the real world and paint their kitchen they don't make a total mess of it."

"Um, these high school classes you mentioned. . ."

"You mean Paint-by-Numbers? We're seeing much higher enrollments lately. I think it's

mostly coming from parents wanting to make sure their kid gets into a good college. Nothing

looks better than Advanced Paint-by-Numbers on a high school transcript."

"Why do colleges care if you can fill in numbered regions with the corresponding color?"

"Oh, well, you know, it shows clear-headed logical thinking. And of course if a student is

planning to major in one of the visual sciences, like fashion or interior decorating, then it's really

a good idea to get your painting requirements out of the way in high school."

"I see. And when do students get to paint freely, on a blank canvas?"

"You sound like one of my professors! They were always going on about expressing

yourself and your feelings and things like that—really way-out-there abstract stuff. I've got a

degree in Painting myself, but I've never really worked much with blank canvasses. I just use

the Paint-by-Numbers kits supplied by the school board."


Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In

fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child's natural

curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn't possibly do as good a job as is currently being

done-- I simply wouldn't have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soulcrushing

ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

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.

Mathematics and Culture

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.

Everyone understands that poets, painters, and musicians create works of art, and are expressing

themselves in word, image, and sound. In fact, our society is rather generous when it comes to

creative expression; architects, chefs, and even television directors are considered to be working

artists. So why not mathematicians?

Part of the problem is that nobody has the faintest idea what it is that mathematicians do.

The common perception seems to be that mathematicians are somehow connected with

science-- perhaps they help the scientists with their formulas, or feed big numbers into

computers for some reason or other. 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


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.

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

Mathematicians enjoy thinking about the simplest possible things, and the simplest

possible things are imaginary. . . .

For the rest of this essay, go here [pdf file]

You are in for a treat. . . as well as a good argument for scrapping the Common Core standards in math.

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