Why did Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, badly outnumbered and out of ammunition at Little Round Top, order his men to fix bayonets and charge? How did Archimedes’ bath inspire his displacement principle? Why do intelligent, educated people lose their composure—and their careers—over whether to teach Huckleberry Finn in public schools?
These questions circled my brain as I read Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician's Lament, in which the author, a former professor who now teaches high school math, mourns the state of mathematics education. But while a mathematician can easily deplore how math is mistaught, he accurately describes how all of education fails. Segmented curricula, obedience to inscrutable structure, and an emphasis on memorization make lively fields of inquiry seem static and moribund.
Lockhart’s spirited exhortation celebrates mathematics as a field of inquiry, not some place where we handle bones in hopes of naming the corpse. As he dismantles the discovery process, showing how simple points on a page imply complex computative proofs, I realize what my math teachers should have offered, but usually withheld: the right to ask my own questions.
This play of ideas, where I have the encouragement to try something new, offers such thrills that, since finishing the book, I’ve trolled bookstores and the Internet seeking experiments to try. When proving squares has me arranging pennies on a table to discover patterns, it transforms math from the inert “skillz drillz” that misguided me twenty years ago into an experience that leaves me rolling on the floor, laughing uncontrollably at the thrill of discovery.
But why should this thrill belong to math alone? For instance, history says the Union won at Gettysburg, but this victory was not inevitable. Why did my high school textbooks neuter the Civil War and the Revolution while completely eliminating King Philip’s War and the Apache Wars? Why did my teachers reduce history to names, dates, and maps in a vacuum?
Historian James Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, blames the same forces Lockhart does: teachers who don’t challenge themselves or keep abreast of developments, and textbook writers who pander to those teachers and committees. The result speaks for itself. Students consider history a fait accompli, avoid asking questions, and see learning as a process of plugging memorized facts into multiple-choice questions.
I wish I could pretend my field doesn’t suffer similarly. But Gerald Graff, author of Clueless in Academe, demonstrates how meaningful literature, which we celebrate because it asks the most important questions, instead gets taught as a sequence to memorize. This rote procedure renders reading joyless, and more important, blinds students to the momentous opportunities literature provides them.
Years ago, a friend showed me her son’s Hamlet homework. I was appalled that the entire assignment focused on stage events: who said what, what came before and after, and so on. Hamlet doesn’t matter because moments occur in sequence! It matters because it speaks to our shared fundamental human experience. But this assignment stripped the play of its inherent beauty and joy.
When the same complaint echoes across multiple curricula, I wonder: has something failed, not with individual disciplines, but with the entire process? Fields like math, history, and literature once formed the “liberal studies,” a core educational experience that frees the human soul. Why then do students emerge feeling shackled, weighed down, and enslaved?
John Taylor Gatto, former teacher and award-winning author of Dumbing Us Down, suggests that forces of wealth and authority conspire to turn schools into assembly lines. Instead of well-rounded and intellectually ambitious students, the factory school turns out young workers so dispirited and passive that they remain dependent on bosses and other authority figures all their lives. I’m not so sure.
I’ve taught long enough to recognize one important fact: teaching is hard. I don’t mean for students. Being a teacher, responding to students’ needs, and anticipating their struggles tomorrow, next week, next year, and in their careers—teaching is difficult. And it should remain difficult, because it’s difficult for students, and if they see us trivializing their struggles, they justly regard their difficulties as not that important, unworthy of their effort.
Educated students should emerge into their adult roles, not in possession of memorized facts, but prepared to ask the most important questions, and then pursue the answers. Life is not an open-book quiz. Teachers, please: keep it difficult. Keep it taxing. And stay transparent enough that students can see your struggles. Anything less robs kids of their most important ability, the ability to think.