"Lecture" for Week 14

Mathematics Education

Position papers

I liked your papers. I expected that after I read two or three, they would all start to sound the same, but no. There were quite a few original ideas, and lots of relevant references, including some from the 1920s or whenever -- good sleuthing! Second, I was glad to see you Keeping It 100 (for those of you who kept watching Comedy Central after Stephen Colbert left) instead of providing doubleplusgood duckspeak (for those who read Orwell) about the value of history and the need to emphasize women and minorities. Many of you are well aware of the time constraints of a classroom and other practical obstacles. [More about underrepresented groups below.] And third, I'm happy to see many of you making good use of the eCampus discussion board to continue the conversation.
Underrepresented groups

Thanks to Debra Brewer for this link:

It reminded me of this one: As some of you pointed out, overemphasizing the contributions of underrepresented groups can be counterproductive. To make a huge deal out of Hypatia, or Emmy Noether, amounts to saying, "Gee! She was a woman! Isn't that remarkable!" That sends precisely the wrong message. Better to mention people in context, calmly, and honestly. At an appropriate place, a side remark about the obstacles historically faced by these groups is appropriate. (For example, recall my footnote about Rodrigues, who was both Jewish (in a century when that was a detriment, not an advantage) and (in a broad sense) Hispanic. In upper-level electromagnetism class I learned "Rodrigues's formula" for Legendre functions, but there was never a thought about whom it was named after.) Education's highest priority, especially at the university level, must be to the truth, not to any social agenda. One of the problems discussed in your essays is the slowness of history to be incorporated into mathematics courses; I suspect that one of the obstacles is that many rank-and-file math professors would rather discuss no history at all than to present what they perceive as a biased, politically ordained line that exaggerates the contributions of women and minorities.

Looking at the usual lists of women mathematicians, I think that Hypatia is probably overemphasized and Sophie Germain underemphasized. The problem with Hypatia is that she was primarily an assistant to her father, Theon, and Theon himself does not have the greatest reputation nowadays. (Heath thought that his editing of Euclid made the Elements worse.) A balanced appraisal is given by M. A. B. Deakin, "Hypatia and Her Mathematics", American Mathematical Monthly 101 (1994) 234-243. Similarly, although they had serious mathematical careers, I doubt that David Blackwell and Ernest Wilkins would be mentioned in histories of mathematics today if they were not Black. (Of course, if they had been able to get decent jobs in research-oriented institutions right after they got their Ph.D.s, the story MIGHT have been different.) On the other hand, Kate Okikiolu is a very highly regarded research mathematician of the present day. Unfortunately, her mathematics is SO good that it is probably impossible to explain it to students below the graduate level.

Finally, we should always remember that most students, especially at lower levels, have no ambition to become research mathematicians. Whether Hypatia, or Blackwell, or Ahmes, belongs in the pantheon of "real mathematicians" is probably beside the point to them. "You CAN graduate from junior college and become a competent bookkeeper" is a more pertinent message than "Somebody who looked like you proved theorems."

The book reviews
Oops! I graded the reviews on a 20-point scale, but the syllabus says it should be 100 points. I'll go back and multiply by 5, but I hope I'll have time to look at them again, and any revisions you made on eCampus, and do some fine-tuning of the grades. There are some comments I want to make, but I've been waiting for you (ahem!) to finish posting reviews and make any comments of your own.

The Math Wars

OK, let's wind down by reading the math ed debate. (Unless you demand a homework assignment on combinatorics.) The Week 14 discussion forum is available for your reactions.