Reading Lockhart’s Lament

I’m home and today I printed out a copy of Paul Lockhart’s article “A Mathematician’s Lament” and started to read it on the bus from Borås. I got the reference from Alex Diesl at Wellesley College, he mentioned it while we were chatting away after lunch at the Peet’s Coffe and Tea.

Anyway, I didn’t know what to expect from this text. It starts out with a fictitious story of a musician waking up from a nightmare. I’m really not much for such “parables”, but I read on.

Normally I fall asleep after 20 minutes on the bus. But not this time, three pages into the text I was wide awake! If you haven’t already read this text and are curious what’s in it, you should read it. Here’s a quote from Keith Devlin:

“It is, quite frankly, one of the best critiques of current K-12 mathematics education I have ever seen.”

You will find a link at Lockhart’s Lament, where there is also some background information about the text. Read it now. Even though what Lockhart discusses is not funny at all, the text itself is hilariously funny to read.

This article and the reality it describes is of course highly relevant to any project to humanize university mathematics teaching. Let us, for the sake of argument, say that we basically agree with what Lockhart writes. Then the students that enter university (college) has gone through the experiences described in the text. My question is: how can we use the available time for mathematics to let the students finally experience mathematics as an art? To play it as a musician plays an instrument.

That is the challenge, really.

Then I have another question. How did mathematics education end up in this terrible mess? Is there something in mathematics that makes it vulnerable?

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