This post is an essay I wrote for a peer writing tutor application. I keep a digital journal full of ideas for things I want to write about and one of the ideas that I added over the summer that I never got around to was about an essay I read called “A Mathematician’s Lament.” Well, the opportunity finally came for me to write about it. It’s not about knitting or crafting but I hope you give it a glance.
There is an abundance of great writing out there, from the Greek classics, to the admired novels by literary heroes like Austen, Fitzgerald, and Orwell, to the beloved series’ by modern day storytellers like J.K. Rowling. It is clear that all these and other pieces of literature are fruits of creative, imaginative minds. The same goes for pieces of art and music. But this creativity is not limited to literature, the arts, and music, as our society would suggest it is. Would it be unexpected for math to be put in the same category?
Paul Lockhart, author of the essay “A Mathematician’s Lament” does not think it should be. Lockhart opens the essay with a hypothetical anecdote: a musician and a painter wake up from nightmares that children were being forced to study music and art in a theoretical manner all through their educational careers without ever picking up an instrument or painting from a blank canvas. As a musician myself, I found this image completely absurd. However, that striking image is exactly how mathematics is currently being taught in schools. Students are learning about all sorts of methods in school, but are not allowed to explore the creative thought process that came up with the ideas in the first place. Lockhart states, “The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art.” Through his informal style and well-developed explanations, Lockhart justifies math as a creative art form and criticizes the current preposterous hierarchical system of mathematics education where students are conditioned to believe math is a science rather than an art and how this system stifles creative and imaginative thought.
Until this summer when I came across “A Mathematician’s Lament,” I had never found a piece of writing that illustrated my love and lament of math exactly as I felt it. Throughout my educational career I have had this knack for music, art, and math, and I had believed that my love for seemingly opposite ends of the brain function spectrum was odd. When I went onto high school, where both math and science were heavily emphasized, I found that the physical sciences were the least favorites of my subjects while math was my favorite. These two subjects have been paired together for so long that I thought it was abnormal for me to dislike one and love the other so much. I thought science was boring, theoretical, and completely based on rote memorization with zero original thought while math was beautiful, imaginative, and magical. If only I had known that math was an art and not a science! I was fortunate enough to have a couple of math teachers who understood the need to teach math creatively and who fueled my passion for the subject. Sadly, most of my peers were taught by the wrong methods and approached math at the wrong angle. They were taught to memorize formulas and derivatives without being able to appreciate and understand the simple and beautiful patternmaking behind them. Now, they abhor even the thought of math. It is for this reason that I would recommend “A Mathematician’s Lament” to my friends, classmates, and even teachers, professors, and elected government officials. The essay is unexpectedly entertaining, yet eye opening and informative. I believe that many people’s opinions about math would be changed after reading Lockhart’s essay. Math is not what we think it is. The beauty of math has been lost in our society’s educational structure and it needs to be rediscovered.