Home > Math News Archive Detail

<< Prev 5/2/2010 Next >>

What is Mathematics For?

The "internet waves" have been abuzz for the past two weeks, all prompted by one article. The culprit was Underwood Dudley's "What is Mathematics For?" published in The Notices of the AMS (Vol. 57#5, May 2010, pp. 608-613).

And, no, you do not have to hunt down someone who has a copy of this journal, rather you can use this Link. Read it, reflect on it, discuss it with your colleagues, read it again.

Many blogs and listserves have been filled with commentary about this article...pro and con...with the expected naysayers taking up their entrenched positions:

  • From H: "It is always gratifying when an author cites the truth, but this article is, on the whole, preposterous. Sad to say....At first, I was thrilled to read Dudley's comments about the real, practical need for mathematics: quite minimal. But then, he goes on and on about how the learning of algebra trains the mind. This is the excuse made for every discipline that has few practical uses."
  • From H: "Well, it may be perfectly true that (a) the public wants more mathematics taught, and (b) the public senses that mathematics develops the power to reason. But, 'the public' believes all sorts of things that 'ain't so'.... Furthermore, I remain skeptical that "the public" really does want more mathematics taught. It is well known that people tend to give politically correct answers to poll takers, and the self-serving propaganda for the teaching of ever more mathematics has been relentless for decades."
  • From FR: "Dudley does not question that mathematics has wide-ranging applications. His point concerns how mathematics is learned, and that the objective of teaching mathematics is to promote the intellectual development of students and to sharpen their logical reasoning skills. This is a far cry from the flimflam that is contained in reports like A Nation at Risk and the rubbish that has been stunting the minds of American students under the guise of: using technology to solve real-world problems, teaching 21st-century mathematics, world-class education, etc."
  • From KO: "Now, if we could just admit that we are doing algebra to limber up our minds and exercise the brain, maybe we could get somewhere. There is lots of really beautiful mathematics (of both the useless and useful variety -- graph theory comes to mind, also symbolic logic) that limbers up the brain in the same way, maybe better. Why force students into algebra?"
So, again: Read it, reflect on it, discuss it with your colleagues, read it again...and form your own "professional" opinions about Dudley's arguments.