One way of understanding the subject disciplines of an academic curriculum is to see them as representing different ways of thinking; different and powerful ways. In this schema, mathematics represents deductive logic. It is iron-clad. If x=3 then 2x=6. No question. Mathematics has none of the fuzziness of the inductive logic characteristic of science and, to a certain extent, history. And it has none of the raging ambiguity afflicting the interpretist arts such as English, where you can just make up words if you want to and where I am informed by domain experts that although the word ‘literally’ literally means ‘literally’, we should be relaxed about people using it to mean ‘really’ because those two contradictory meanings can exist in some kind of lexical superposition.
Mathematics is a refuge of certainty and I am sure that this is part of the appeal for many who fall in love with the subject.
No matter, there is no object in the world so beautiful that someone out there won’t want to deface it and there are folks who are set on defacing mathematics.
Apparently, there is a move afoot to ‘humanise’ mathematics. You may wonder what is so inhuman about deductive logic, but the term seems to originate in the narrower sense of the humanities disciplines. In other words, we are talking about a movement seeking to make maths more like history.
This clearly misses the point that mathematics is so powerful precisely because it represents a different way of thinking than other disciplines.
Writing on his blog, maths education pundit Dan Meyer proclaims that:
“Math is only objective, inarguable, and abstract for questions defined so narrowly they’re almost useless to students, teachers, and the world itself.”
Instead, we need to focus on questions such as how many bricks there are in a pile of bricks. These remind me of those occasional fundraisers where you are asked to guess how many jellybeans are in a jar; a mild distraction that would rapidly become tedious as a curriculum.
According to Meyer, we should:
“Ask students to make claims that demand to be argued and interpreted rather than evaluated by an authority for correctness… If our students leave our classes this year without understanding that they have had made unique and original contributions to how humans think mathematically, we have defined “mathematics” too narrowly.”
No. We already have humanities subjects. We don’t need to dress mathematics up as something that it is not. It serves no purpose and it misunderstands precisely what it is about mathematics that makes it valuable. Moreover, mathematics won’t work very well as a humanity, kids will see through it and check out. This is precisely what happened in the U.S. when history was redefined according to Deweyan doctrine to become an ugly form of social studies that everyone dislikes.
Sometimes people approach me via social media and plea for nuance. They seek to build bridges. They ask why I cannot make my peace with the proponents of fuzzy maths. What’s wrong with a few rich tasks here and there? I cannot see a clearer and more definitive divide than between those who want to respect the discipline of mathematics and pass this on to future generations, and those who want to pulp it into something else that involves endless windbaggery.
There is no room for compromise here.