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Mathematics as a historical entity
Posted:
Apr 20, 1995 1:27 PM


On Thu, 20 Apr 1995, Ted Alper wrote:
> Why is it important to teach that mathematics is a growing body of > knowledge? I mean, it's certainly true, and it is better to > be aware of the wide world than not  but how much attention should be > paid to this in an 8th grade math class?
snip
> The bulk of the mathematics students learn in K12 dates from the 18th > century or earlier. It is dressed up in 20th century notation, and > takes some of its emphases from the late 19th/early 20th century  > and is frequently applied to modern contexts  but there is little > "modern" mathematics in it. Perhaps a few topics in the BC calculus > saw their first rigorous proofs in the 19th century  not that the BC > calculus students are given complete proofs.
I seed to have missed the point to these statements. I recall that the physics, chemistry, biology, english grammer, spanish grammer, literature, and even the history was largely a century or more old. I also came away with the impression that all of these areas of human endeavor were constantly evolving (pardon the biological pun) and that human understanding of even small areas of study in them were also changing. I did not get a similar impression of mathematics.
In hindsight, that was (is? I hate temporal mechanics) a problem. I graduated from high school equating mathematician with actuary or some similar object.
After lamenting the problem, I will give my first guess at a solution. I try, and would suggest that others also try, to place mathematical ideas that are being taught in their historical perspective. If you are teaching classic geometry, talk about the Greeks; include Greek philosophy and drama. I teach calculus, so I get to talk about the parallel development of physics.
Maybe if we place math in its historical perspective, and talk about when the stuff we're talking about didn't exist, then we can impart the idea that math isn't like latin: mostly dead and easily forgotten.
Ed
 Edward S. Miller edmiller@lcsc.edu
Division of Natural Sciences VOICE 2087992810 LewisClark State College FAX 2087992064 500 8th Avenue Lewiston ID 835012698 USA 



