10 June 2005

Math isn't just useful


Vektor has got his knickers in a twist over a teaching-college text that says "that mathematics instruction should be re-architected to 'teach social justice'".

He's disgusted, he says, because it takes a value-neutral subject and politicizes it. There's also his disgust that it was written from a left-wing perspective. I doubt he'd have been moved to write about it had the "pro-life" brigade produced their own version of the same.

I'm annoyed by it, but for a different reason. I think Vektor is right in saying that math is value-neutral, at least within the realm of rational thought. And the thing is, math is practical and useful. It's just as useful for cooking Enron's books as it is for cooking a meal for 30.

My problem with the book (as reported by Vektor — I haven't read it) is that it misses the whole point of mathematics. People don't become mathematicians because they are "good with numbers" — many superb mathematicians are bad at arithmetic. They become mathematicians because they are drawn to its beauty. Nothing is more essential to the student of mathematics than a feel for the kind of esthetic which gets called "elegance" in math. Nothing in math is more satisfying than knowing that you have discovered an elegant proof. That's why people work in areas which have no practical application. They do it for love of the sublime.

Update: The latest issue of Edge talks about this topic.