Commentary shows problem with education discourse


When I wrote my commentary about liberal arts math education for the Targum last week, I didn’t really expect it to get much attention — which is why I was overjoyed to find that Kellen Myers, a math Ph.D candidate at Rutgers, had taken time to write a nice, long post of his own in response. My joy quickly faded, as nowhere in Myers’ retort did he actually address the issue at hand — namely, what kind of math should be taught to mathematically uninterested liberal arts majors. Let’s look at his three central claims, then go on to talk about the real issue.

His first claim: “The author  (referring to me) seems to believe that he has dismantled [Math 103] as a hodgepodge of meaningless, pedantic, uninteresting topics…” Not at all. Here is a direct quote from my original post: “I’m not saying these topics aren’t interesting — of course they are.” I don’t think I could have been clearer. Myers (perhaps intentionally) ignored this part of my post, built a straw man of my argument, and then happily spent five paragraphs tearing it down. The discussion, to be clear, is not about whether the topics of Math 103 are interesting or relevant — the problem is how to get the essence of mathematics across to non-mathematicians. My contention was (and still is) that Euclid’s Elements does an incredible job of showing what math is about, rather than what math can be applied to — a better job than Math 103 is doing, for sure.

The second point he makes is that debates concerning the essence of mathematics should be left to the mathematicians. Well, if everyone were intellectually confined to his or her own narrow area of expertise, the Earth would be a very sad and pallid place. Furthermore, being a graduate student does not automatically place someone over the rest of us when speaking about mathematics. So I decline Myers’ condescending request to “leave such determinations to the mathematicians.” I also thank Myers for informing me that “there is certainly more to math than just Euclid’s elements.” He’s apparently ignorant of the kinds of math used in physics (my field of study), which includes (but is not limited to) calculus, real and complex analysis, linear algebra, ordinary differential equations, partial differential equations, group theory and differential geometry.

Who exactly does Rutgers prepare and for what? Do math educators seriously believe that people are thinking about the mathematics of social choice theory when casting a ballot — deep and fertile as the subject may be? Is the goal to let students “do” math or is it just to convince them how useful and ‘widely applicable’ math is?

So in closing, despite Myers’ confused (yet passionate) defense of applied mathematics, the question remains standing: what math is appropriate to teach liberal arts majors and why? I still believe Euclid’s Elements is the right choice. Why? Let’s consult ol’ Abraham Lincoln, and see what he had to say: “You never can make a lawyer if you do not understand what ‘demonstrate’ means; and I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight.”

This is ight on the money, Abe. Yes, Euclid teaches math — but more importantly, he teaches reason. He shows that you can start from first principles and derive almost 500 True propositions. Using nothing but that gelatinous, pulsating organ under your forehead, you can find Truth in this world. And if your demonstration is airtight, the jury will always vote in your favor. That is the meaning of “truth with a capital T” — a meaning which, unfortunately, Myers seems unwilling to grasp.


Leo Kozachkov is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in physics. He is a staff writer for Applied Sentience, a Rutgers humanist blog.

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