Newsletter #98     an Open Letter from Tom Berger

For the past couple of weeks I have been perched uncomfortably on the horns of a dilemma. I have in recent months repeatedly declared myself a Math Pacifist and attempted to refrain from firing off anything that might be regarded as a shot in the Math Wars. I still believe that a tremendous amount of the controversy is unnecessary, and in any case fueling acrimony is generally unprofitable. On the other hand, I have received now from several sources whom I highly respect an open letter written by a mathematician to be circulated among mathematicians. The letter recounts an incident that occurred in Maine, and I briefly tried to convince myself that that hornet's nest was already over the dam (not my phrase, but I love it!) Unfortunately, I can't convince myself that there are not more hornet's nests a-building, and in the end I decided that quietly stashing the letter would be plain irresponsible.So here it is. It came with a covering letter from one of his colleagues at Colby College, which I shall include. I should perhaps also add that the person to whom the letter is addressed, James Milgram, is one of the most aggressive anti-reform activists. If you would like a closer view of his opinions, check . Then, while you are at it, also check the opposing views at


The attached open letter by Tom Berger injects a healthy dose of calm common sense into the increasingly destructive internecine conflict about elementary and secondary mathematics curricula. The incident it describes is self-explanatory, but its implications extend far beyond a single meeting in Maine. He poses a fundamental question for all of us to consider, a question that transcends pedagogical ideologies and inflammatory rhetoric. All of us in the mathematics and mathematics education communities would be well advised to think long and hard about the issue he raises.

It is Tom's intent that this letter receive the widest possible distribution. You are encouraged to pass it along to anyone who might be interested in mathematics education.

Bill Berlinghoff

Visiting Professor of Mathematics

Colby College

PS: For those who don't know Tom Berger, the following is a brief background sketch to confirm his credibility in this matter. Tom is currently Carter Professor of Mathematics at Colby College. Before coming to Colby, he spent 30 years on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, where he was a productive researcher and teacher. He has been an invited researcher in Germany, England, New Zealand, Australia, and China, and some of his theorems are important enough to appear in textbooks. He has managed education grants for the National Research Council, has been a Program Director with the National Science Foundation, formerly chaired the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics of the Mathematical Association of America, and was on the American Mathematical Society's Task Force for Excellence. In Minnesota, Tom was involved in the Talented Youth Mathematics Program and worked with teacher enhancement grants. Now in Maine, Tom serves on the executive board of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance and is a Principal Investigator of a professional development and curriculum implementation project in the state.


September 20, 2002

Professor James Milgram

Department of Mathematics

Stanford University

Stanford, CA


I am replying to you with an open letter. Events of this past week or so have dismayed me and brought me to ask if my views on democracy in America are out of line with those of my peers. Though I feel that people have the legal right to express even extreme forms of dissent, I also believe that there is a slow decrease in our civility to one another, making it much more difficult to bring about consensus and accomplish common goals. In the range between civility and the extremity of legal expression is a gray area where all of us react negatively or positively. I need to ask if many people would react as I have. First I'd like to outline as objectively as I can the events to which I am reacting.

I have been outside the US for a full year and only returned about a month ago. As I arrived I was invited to attend a meeting called by the Commissioner of Education of the State of Maine at the request of a small group of citizens of the state. I accepted. Behind closed doors the group related personal experiences. Then a spokesperson read an argument premised on a view of mathematics education that quoted you frequently. The rationale was based first upon this view and second on an argument that outsiders had exerted undue influence upon local school districts. The statement concluded with a set of nonnegotiable demands placed before the commissioner. The fact that the demands were nonnegotiable was reinforced in clear terms when some present were incredulous.

The list of demands required the removal of a set of specific curricula from the schools of Maine, the termination of any state funding used to support districts and teachers implementing these curricula, and the strict severance of any relationship of the commissioner with organizations working statewide to support districts and teachers implementing these (and consequently other) curricula.

Prior to this statement, some of the group individually related their own personal experiences in the schools. One person was a state legislator, two were school board members, one was a teacher, and two were parents active in the schools. Two had withdrawn their children from the public schools and one had found alternative schooling for a child. Everyone in the group was very well prepared, articulate, and experienced in governance. In other words, in any forum they would be able to express their position clearly. Further, the school board members, teacher, and legislator had the power of the vote. All wore a badge that I had to have explained to me later. It was thereby clear that this group was a "political action committee" or PAC.

Two days later I received an email from you, 3,000 miles away in a distant state. I believe this is the first written personal communication I have ever received from you. You told me that two from the group wrote that I "communicated 'disdain' for both me and Dick" and asked me to "clarify what was actually said." Very shortly after this I received an email from Dick Askey, about 1,500 miles away also in another state, with more particular questions about mathematics curricula but also asking what was said in this meeting with the commissioner.

Then I received from the commissioner a letter written to the governor by a spokesperson for the group. The letter begins by asking the governor for help working "constructively with the Commissioner," stating that in the meeting I attended they were met with "hostile confrontation from the Commissioner rather than constructive dialog." The letter went on to relate their view of events in Maine and to back up their position with arguments that can be found on the "Mathematically Correct" website. Since I was present at the meeting, I think the governor and commissioner sent the letter to me as a courtesy.

Next I would like to ask you, Dick, and others about democracy in America.

Here are my reactions to these events. Having lived about 30 years in Minnesota I know school governance differs greatly from state to state. Maine is a very democratic state, frequently using the town meeting to make decisions. Mainers are fiercely independent, so our town and school administrators and teachers are very practiced in hearing an extraordinarily wide range of views on matters like education and from this wide range of views distilling sound conclusions. In addition, many towns do not have schools and some have only elementary schools. These towns must negotiate over property tax, education, and power to obtain education for their youngsters in neighboring tax districts. Mainers are very able to understand the power of influence and money. I have no doubt after meeting this group that in their own districts they made their case well. Further, I have no doubt that those who made the decisions factored the group's arguments, both the educational argument and the argument about undue influence, into their decision. This decision did not agree with what the group wanted.

Frequently I have been asked for advice on school decisions. Because I am a professor my views are often not mainstream, so that frequently these decisions do not agree with my view. However, I was heard and the people making the decisions worked carefully. So my response was to roll up my sleeves, sit on classroom floors with children, work with teachers in their professional development activities, serve on committees that promoted interest in mathematics education, and seek both private and federal funding to help the children and teachers of my state. My wife and I would never have dreamed of pulling our children out of public school because things were not going our way. Had we opted out of the system, we certainly would not return to attack what hard working citizens had labored to craft.

Am I wrong to feel that others should pitch in when a result is democratically reached, or, at least, not attempt to overturn the process from the outside? Am I wrong to feel that people who find that they cannot stay and live with a decision should not come back to destroy what they left behind? What do other people think about this kind of activity?

Somewhere along the line, the members of the group who visited the commissioner found each other over varying districts and, judging by your email, apparently over varying states all around our country. Some of those in Maine formed a PAC and began working within the bureaucracy, behind closed doors, to alter decisions so carefully worked out by due process in local districts. To the outside world (e.g. the letter to the governor) this group presents a reasonable and rational image. Behind closed doors they present non-negotiable demands to appointed officials.

I know that these actions happen all the time, but they still make me feel uncomfortable. Is it all right to feel uncomfortable in the face of demands that appointed officials tell local districts to overturn decisions? Am I wrong to feel uncomfortable about this kind of governance in the US for our locally controlled schools? Am I out of step with my peers?

Then I received your email. I know absolutely nothing about the meetings called by the Commissioner of Education of the State of California. Even though I grew up near your home in California and raised my family in Minnesota, I have no business entering the politics of these states. I am a citizen of Maine. Even though I have years of experience with children, teachers, educational research, and the role of the federal government, I do not pretend any expertise on school education beyond that immediately useful to the people of my state, my professional organizations, and occasionally the federal government. If I am mistreated, misquoted, or even quoted correctly in a closed-door meeting with the Commissioner of Education of the State of California then that is none of my business. I am sure I will survive. My life and my stake in school education are not in California. They are in Maine.

Am I off base to feel that maybe some sleight of hand has happened here, that democratic processes are not working as they should, that probably I shouldn't have received an email from you because you should not even know about meetings called by Maine state officials? What do other people think?

Aaron Brown on Newsnight recently said that in a free country like ours we should expect a very wide range of views (most of those are probably already held among the very diverse people of Maine). He went on to say it is very troubling that this wide range no longer represents a continuous spectrum of views, but rather that we have become polarized. The only views are extreme views. My own belief is that decisions should be reached in forums open to those who have a stake. Further, that rightly or wrongly, when a decision is reached, we all have an obligation to make it work. If we find we cannot, we have the right to opt out peacefully. But once that choice is made, we should not reach back to destroy that which we left.

There is a fundamental assumption here. Human beings, even groups of human beings, have a right to be wrong so long as they arrive at their decision through democratic means open to stakeholders. One reason for this is that 'wrongness' is in the eye of the beholder. In education, I have found that textbooks are not the major issue. Some make my job harder, some easier. Time and the ballot box tend to correct our mistakes. Is this an unconventional view? Am I out of step with democracy in America? I am asking these questions of the people of Maine, the educators I have known and worked with, the members of my chosen profession, and of you and Dick. How many others have had an experience like mine with you, Jim?

Now I would like to answer your two main questions.

First, you want to know what was said in the meeting. Other than the meager details about the meeting given in this letter, I think you should ask the commissioner. Second, do I disdain you? No I don't. Do I disdain the group who met with the commissioner? No I don't.

Here is my opinion of you. A hundred years from now there will be graduate students working to understand the most recent proof of a theorem of Milgram and wondering who he was and what he was like. I don't hold that view of very many. However, I believe that we, as mathematicians, are not prepared through our craft to assume the role of national leadership in mathematics education. Expertise in one of these fields does not automatically transfer to expertise in the other. Despite, or perhaps because of, my many years of working hand in hand with mathematics educators in a broad variety of circumstances, I do not feel qualified to call myself an expert in mathematics education, and I don't think you are, either. I am quite concerned that you don't share my qualms in this regard, especially when I directly experience the tactics that you seem to condone and advise (given your very rapid email to me) on what appears to be a national scale.

I am sorry that you, as a leading mathematician and in the same profession as mine, have made me so sad about the state of democracy in America.


Thomas R. Berger

Carter Professor of Mathematics

and Computer Science


Professor Richard Askey, University of Wisconsin

Commissioner Duke Albanese

Governor Angus King


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