Humanistic Mathematics vs. Liberal Arts Mathematics

Today I had a conversation with Bonnie Shulman at Bates College in Maine that clarified something that I think I understood before, but had somehow anyway mixed up in my thinking. It has to do with the relationship between Humanistic Mathematics and Liberal Arts Mathematics. I’ll try to write about it while it is still fresh in my memory.

There are many motivations behind this project of mine. I wrote that book chapter about Mathematics and “Bildung” which was really about how such a connection could, and perhaps should, guide mathematics teaching at the university level. It was explicitly written for an anthology about how Liberal Arts Education could help improve Swedish higher education. As I’ve written elsewhere, I realized that I didn’t know much about how mathematics was taught at Liberal Arts Colleges. So finding that out became the motivation for this trip.

But then I mixed in this issue about mathematics as a humanistic subject. It was a train of thought that I had got onto, most likely through many years of being interested in such aspects of mathematics and having read a lot of history and philosophy of mathematics, but actually never coming across the very phrase or concept of “humanistic mathematics”. But you tend to pick up ideas anyway if you are tuned to them. It was when Paul Campbell at Beloit College sent me that link to the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics that I became aware of that “sub-culture” (as Bonnie said).

It is also strange that the corresponding sub-culture in Sweden, discussing “mathematics and bildung” apparently are not aware of the American humanistic mathematics movement. At least I haven’t seen any reference to that effect in their writings, but I may be wrong.

At the start of our conversation, Bonnie made it clear that if my key question is how the Liberal Arts context influences how mathematics is taught, then it is not humanistic mathematics that I’m interested in. This drastic way of putting it made it clear to me that Liberal Arts maths and Humanistic maths are actually different things! I wasn’t surprised by the fact itself, but I was surprised by myself having had it mixed up for so long! I said that, well, then what I’m really interested in is indeed humanistic mathematics. But I had thought that I could find it practiced at Liberal Arts colleges …

… and you can. Nothing prevents a professor to teach humanistic mathematics and/or teach mathematics humanistically, and it is sometimes done but perhaps not that often. The opportunity is there, but perhaps too often it is a missed opportunity. So in this way, my conversation with Bonnie verified the impression I’ve got from other conversations, that the Liberal Arts environment may influence mathematics teaching but need not do it.

Another thing that became apparent to me was that what you get at a Liberal Arts college is not so much the classes themselves being taught differently, but the context itself with its focus on breadth, depth, interdisciplinarity, critical thinking, writing and communication et cetera rather than a focus on a vocation or profession.

So now I’ve got it straight!

But not wanting to end at this somewhat uneasy note, let me say that at Colby College that I visited earlier in the week, I got a couple of examples where the opportunity to teach differently are taken. But I will write about it in another post. And it also time to dig deeper into humanistic mathematics itself. What is it, really?

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