Newsletter #93     NCTM meets Las Vegas

I had been planning for this to instititute a whole new genre best described as Pollyanna goes Polemic, but I find that my vocabulary is just not up to it, so I shall stick with my normal World of Warfield Warblings, and hope that someone else will take on the role I'm not up for. Some context: I have recently returned from a trip that began with four days of meetings and conferences in Las Vegas. In the course of the four days I wound up inspired in not one but two directions (and that's not including the inspiration to get out town as swiftly as possible -- Las Vegas is not my scene!) The first of the inspirations was on my own research front: as I have mentioned before, I spend my time trying to build linguistic and cultural bridges to make the work of Guy Brousseau on DIdactique accessible to English speaking mathematics educators. A snag has been a feeling that I might be shouting across a chasm too wide for my voice to carry. Sunday morning we had a discussion session on Didactique at the NCTM Research Pre-session and I found that there are a number of people who are A) definitely interested and B) equally definitely eager to have that bridge solidified. Just exactly what I needed to learn as I set off in a bit for a couple of weeks of working with Brousseau. Yes, that introductory monograph will get written!

Monday, on the other hand, had a very different flavor. It was a session run for folks involved in NSF Local Systemic Change projects, with the title "How to Win Friends and Influence the Public in the LSC Math Reform Movement." That's where my Pollyannatude sustained a serious jolt. I knew that the current administration was advocating an appalling amount of standardized testing and I had heard other alarming tidbits. What I had not grasped is that the entire reform movement is in serious danger of being wiped out all over the country. The day began with a lively tale of a successful effort to do exactly that in California, told by Bill Jacobs, a Santa Barbara math professor who has been extremely active in his defense of the reform. I very much hope to get him up here next year (he's willing, schedule permitting) because there is no way I can come close to doing justice to his story, and it is one we -- and many others -- urgently need to hear. The reason we do was made clear both within his tale and by the next speaker, who commented "I originally read the reports on what was going on in California roughly the way I read about earthquakes in the Near East. And then the action moved to Washington, DC." Lynn Cheney, for one, is on a truly violent campaign against essentially everything I regard as valuable in the current mathematics education scene. We had a partial transcript of an American Enterprise Institute session she hosted containing an incredible collection of inflammatory statements about "NSF and NCTM fuzzy math programs", few of them with any validity at all, and some even self-contradictory, but all obviously well received. It was infuriating, of course, but also frightening.

Things got a little stickier for me for a bit after that. I should mention that the anti-NCTM-and- NSF-curriculum movement includes a small but extremely vocal (not to mention abrasive) set of research mathematicians. In response to this, one of the later speakers spent a chunk of time on the subject of "Why are Mathematicians Angry?" I'm not sure if I would have managed to tune myself back in at all if Gini Stimpson, with whom Ramesh Gangolli and I have worked with great pleasure on both of the CML projects, hadn't stepped in to point out that he was overgeneralizing in a detrimental way. That enabled me eventually to stop grinding my teeth and begin listening again. But it was a comment from the floor at another point in the meeting that lodged itself gently under my skin and stuck there. "Given that the group of anti-reform mathematicians took it upon themselves to put a full page scathing letter in the Washington Post, why are there no mathematicians to take them on and rebut their arguments?"

That, as I say, stuck with me, and thoughts about it kept cropping up during the rest of the week, as I tramped my way happily through Zion and Bryce Canyons. The answer is obvious: very few mathematicians have any idea of what's going on. In fact, many feel explicitly that it has nothing to do with them. I'm not sure if this was ever really true (I recently ran into a wonderful and not particularly recent line, whose source I have already forgotten, that university mathematics faculty should not expect to pluck the ripe fruit if they do not put some effort into watering the tree.) What I do know for sure is that it is not the case now. That's what brought on my brush with the Joan of Arc complex. As I see it, there is a battle on for the soul of mathematics: is it a connected field of sense-making, problem-solving and communication, or is it a collection of computations and symbol manipulations to be memorized on the authority of the teacher? Somebody desperately needs to lead a counter-charge.

But I'm short a white charger and a suit of armor, not to mention a halo, so somebody else is going to have to lead it. Meanwhile I am sending my synopsis of Alan Schoenfeld's article on Mathematics Equity (Newsletter # 86) to the Notices -- more my style of attack. And I will continue to bend the ear of anyone who comes within range. Fair warning. --

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