July 10th, 2008
In an ongoing email conversation within the ranks of the ATM on its purpose and voice within the uk educational establishment, one of our numbers recommended we read Lockhart’s Lament, an article posted on the website of the Mathematical Association of America by Keith Devlin.
Lockhart’s Lament is a a heartfelt plea to the beauty of mathematics, the place of mathematicians as artists, not engineers, and society’s complete miscomprehension of what mathematics actually is.
The article opens with a parody: what if society had the attitude towards music that it currently has to mathematics? Lockhart asks us to imagine a world where students learn musical theory without ever grasping what music is. In this world, students don’t hear music or feel it, it is a word used to describe a formal system, emotionless and austere. Perhaps a few get to understand, listen to and feel music when they get to university. If they try to describe their joy and amazement, people look at them blankly and conjour up memories of their tests on harmonic scales when they were at school.
For Lockhart, Mathematics is in turns the art of explanation and the music of reason. However, it is as poorly understood by modern western society as music is in his imaginary music-less world. Lockhart argues that “there is no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum.” Through standardisation and testing which puts the onus on memorisation over understanding and exploration, the subject is fundamentally undermined.
The breadth of Lockhart’s exasperation is great: from society to schools, to teachers, and universities, but most forcefully to the government and the curriculum. This, written in 2002 is ever more true. It is an unsettling prospect that the USA is further down the road of standardising the maths out of maths than we are in the UK. Perhaps, using them to see into our future we can change it. Reading this Lament strengthens my belief that we must try.
I hope you gain as much enjoyment, and as much fervour from its reading as I did.