Drawbridge Up, by Enzensberger

Thursday October 1, 2020

This talk from the author of The Number Devil is unfortunately hard to find at a reasonable price. It's a beautiful short version of the not uncommon sentiment that math should be more widely appreciated.

At least Mumford's preface is available:

"I am accustomed, as a professional mathematician, to living in a sort of vacuum, surrounded by people who, as in the first paragraph of Enzensberger's essay, declare with an odd sort of pride that they are mathematically illiterate. How astonishing to come to the International Congress and find a distinguished poet and essayist who analyzes this problem with such a deep understanding and sensitivity. This is a beautiful essay and great delight for a mathematician to read. Here the strange contradictions with which we live are laid bare with accuracy of a dissecting microscope. He is onto our schizophrenic world in which, with one hand, we take pride in building an elegant world utterly divorced from the demands of reality and, with the other, claim that our ideas underlie virtually all technological developments of significance. I was particularly pleased to find that he believes progress is possible in teaching mathematics, that it can be made exciting to young minds. I tried (unsuccessfully) to get each high school in which my children were enrolled to go outside during geometry class and find out how tall the oak in the yard really is. Instead they buckled under to the establishment and even removed that staple of my generation: the odd formulaic Euclidean-style proof in which the pedigree of each step was detailed. This old game, the one piece of high school mathematics often mentioned warmly by people who otherwise hated math, had been found wanting by the mathematical puritans described in the Stewart quote, where the mathematician is unwilling to "lie a bit, like everyone else does". I hope the right people read this essay -- the movers and shakers of school curricula -- and that it moves them to let a hundred flowers bloom in the classroom."

Let me know if you want to borrow my copy.

Selected quotes

"We know that ignorance is a cosmic force of truly insuperable power." (page 21)

"The unforeseen utility of mathematical models is somewhat puzzling." (page 27)

"The ancient debate among the Platonists, the Formalists and the Constructivists appears to be petering out into an exhausting stalemate. Mathematicians hardly concern themselves in their praxis with such questions." (page 29

"It seems a pedagogical idée fixe that children are incapable of abstract thinking." (page 37)