It’s been a long time since I made a post, so today I a dipping my toe back in the water. This isn’t supposed to be a good post, just a post. My problem is that I’ve been stuck for a couple of months now.
There are lots of reasons that I have been stuck. I was burned out. I exhausted myself. I didn’t take good care of myself. I don’t like it when things slow down. I don’t like tending to things, preferring to start journeys that to continue them. I am having health issues. I have young kids who are sometimes exhausting. I’m too old. I’m in the wrong line of work; I should be doing something else. I’m too short. I should stop drinking coffee, or maybe I should drink more of it. I haven’t read enough to have an informed opinion. I don’t know the literature well enough. It’s too late now. My email inbox is too full. I spend too much time online. My house is too messy. The battery life on my laptop is too short. I don’t have a smartphone. My kids aren’t doing music lessons. My voice sounds stupid. I’m obnoxious. I’m middle aged, and all the good things are done by young people with energy or older people with wisdom.
My daughter is in second grade, and the second grade teachers want students to get down their addition and subtraction facts this year, so she’s practicing her addition and subtraction with numbers from 0 to 20. I don’t object to that, but I do start to get worried. School has been fun for her for some time now. But she’s getting older. Will these boring tasks start to seem boring to her, will she see some of what makes math interesting? Will she get frustrated if her recollection of facts isn’t fast enough? The math that she interacts with in school seems so much less rich and inspiring than the reading and writing.
So we get down to the problem that I have with math. On the one hand, school math appears to be uninspiring and unimportant. But the inspiring and exciting math often seems smarmy to me. But I do love some of the things designed to inspire us with mathematics. I love Vi Hart’s stuff, for instance, which is fun, silly, and inspiring. I was talking with a mathematician the other day who left academia and started an after-school program. He doesn’t like Vi Hart, and as far as I could tell it was because she talks down about school math and is too interested in building an audience. Perhaps it is better to be more serious, to try to change the system of mathematics education “from within,” to show people how and why they should love learning for it’s own sake.
I read an essay today by Thomas Frank, in which he talks about the story of creativity in our culture, and how a person can read books that expound on creativity and watch Ted talks about how to be creative, but that all of those books and talks feel recycled and unoriginal. He reaches the conclusion that the creativity literature is for the “professional-managerial audience itself, whose members … think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.”
I think those of us in education can learn something from this. I think that the push for students to learn more math and better math, and the many books bemoaning the poor state of mathematics literacy and education is in effect like the creativity literature. It exists so that those of us in in math and other STEM fields can see our own virtues, see the value of what we bring to the world, see our own “benevolent doctrine” under which we are, if not ruling, at least controlling access to educational capital.
As you read above, I have a lot of excuses for being stuck, but one important component of my stuck-ness is my lack of faith in academia, and particularly in STEM education. I lack the sense that STEM is urgently needed, that STEM is the foundation upon which economic and humanitarian progress rests. I think the narratives that educators, mathematicians, and scientists promote about STEM education are not for the world, they are for us, for scientists, mathematicians, and STEM educators. I would love to find a new story about STEM, and about mathematics. One which has room for real people in it, one in which math, science, and technology are not going to save us all, they are just part of the big wide world. Maybe if I get back to writing, I can start to find that new story.