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Math and its Cultural Legacy

matematiques cultura

What if you had to take an art class in which you were only taught how to paint a fence? What if you were never shown the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso, weren’t even told they existed? Would you appreciate art? I doubt it. […] Obviously it sounds ridiculous, alas, this is how math is taught, and so for most of us it becomes the intellectual equivalent of watching paint dry. While the paintings of the great masters are accessible, the math of the great masters is locked away.

This is one of the first reflections that Edward Frenkel, doctor of Mathematics at Harvard University, shares in his bestseller Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (2015). “If you aren’t a mathematician, this book will make you want to be one” summarizes Nicholas Taleb. The book shares the close-knit relationship between ‘doing mathematics’ and the journey of life, between mathematics and art. As the great British mathematician, Godfrey Harold Hardy also emphasizes in A Mathematician’s Apology (1940):

Why isn’t this vision of mathematics widespread? One of the many reasons we must look for is the fact that many people dedicated to mathematics education come from the world of science, this is very enriching but it has an important counterpoint…

What is Mathematics?

‘A tool’. This is the response many math teachers offer, math teachers that usually come from scientific backgrounds rather than mathematical ones, to the question, ‘What is math to you?’

Yes, Math is very useful in different fields, but it is much more than a tool. It is an end unto itself and an exciting world for the people that love it. It is a way of doing and living that always, everywhere, helped conform humanity’s cultural legacy. To break away from the utilitarian idea, revealing a point of view in which math shines in its own light is necessary.

This idea of math described by Ujué Etayo – José Luis Rubio Award, France 2021 – is what we want to transmit to our students. And how have we been able to do this? Through people who experience math in this way, passionate people who live, doubt and make mistakes. People who become mentors for teenagers.

Historical Context and Guides

How did we choose these mathematical figures that guide our teenager’s journeys in the classroom? We thought of great historical figures. People that had to face complex situations. And who came out of top… or not, but they fought. People who had experienced math in different ways, as a refuge, a distraction, seeking truth, a way of relating to others, etc. People who have questioned the rules. Revolutionaries.

One of these people, for example, the great French mathematician Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831). Being a teenager in the middle of the French Revolution can’t have been easy. And less so if you had certain intellectual worries. Sophie Germain had everything going against her to study mathematics. Even her parents, who wanted to protect her from the scorn and suffering this interest for math would bring, made it impossible for her, to get it out of her head. But nothing stopped Sophie. She dressed as a man, signing her articles as Monsieur Le Blanc, and she had to face the prejudice and stereotypes of the time. After years of struggling and fighting, in 1816 she became the first woman to win a big award in France’s Royal Academy. And that’s not everything, she was the first person to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem (1630) for a large group of numbers.

Sophie is remembered today because nothing stopped her. Her courage and perseverance inspired many people. Maybe it will inspire you too. That is what Cheryl Bardoe claims is Sophie Germain’s role in her story Nothing Stopped Sophie. We want to follow in her footsteps. We want to defend inspirations like Sophie Germain by telling their stories. Defending their struggles and conflicts, their achievements as well as their failures. If our students have the opportunity to get to know people like Sophie Germain, they too will have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps.

  • Marc Caelles

    Trained Engineer and a vocational Mathematics Teacher. Currently he is a math teacher in Sant Gregori school. He combines his teaching work with teacher training and content creation in the Innovamat’s Education department.

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