First the math.
The BBC report today that equations can be beautiful. Apparently it took a few cognitive psychologists and an fMRI scanner to show what the more enlightened among us already knew (yes, I know its yet another fMRI story, but what the heck, it starts my post off). As I said here, Eulers Identity is, unquestionably, a thing of beauty.
Then the literature.
Talking to my year 9 daughter about her day she tells me that today they were studying Macbeth, specifically the “Is this a dagger which I see before me…” soliloquy. Also, clearly, a thing of beauty.
Both Eulers magnificent equation and Shakespeares glorious writing stand at the pinnacle of their respective domains. And I wondered. Why do we teach one to 13 year olds but not the other?
I’ll leave it to better and more literate people to deconstruct the soliloquy (and having, many years ago, seen Ian McKellen do a similar thing with “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks…” it will take a better person than I) but I can do the job on the equation. The knowledge requirements to even begin to understand it are immense. We’ll take as read the basics. Addition, subtraction, the concept of equality and zero. It starts to get tricky with pi, but even that shouldn’t be too difficult. Moving onto the concepts of exponentials and then we veer into the insane territory of imaginary numbers. All that just to explain the symbols used.
It all starts to get a bit leery when we add in sine and cosine and explain that they can be described by an infinite series. And that there are methods of adding up (convergent) infinite series. Actually, just have a look at a video (if you want to).
Even if you don’t understand the maths fully, I think you can see that it is complex (no pun intended).
Now, whilst I’ve often thought it would great to construct a maths course, the sole purpose of which would be to converge on an understanding of Eulers Identity, I have also been sure that it would be wrong to start with it.
So here’s my question. Is that what we are doing with the way literature is taught? Before you think, “Here we go, here’s a mathematician telling us how to teach everything”, I’m not. The question is not rhetorical, it’s genuine. I think the Macbeth soliloquy is complex, as complex in its domain as Euler is in math. Why do we teach one (the literature) to all students at the start of their understanding of the field, and the other (the math) only to those who clear all the previous hurdles – up to and including, usually, Further Maths.
I can see the obvious differences. In the main, a year 9 student can, at the very minimum, usually read the soliloquy and understand the individual words and their discrete meaning. The emotional and intellectual meaning can then be overlaid (look, I’m not an English teacher, i’m reaching out here). We don’t do that with the maths. Why?
So there it is. It is a real question. I’m making no point. I’m genuinely interested in why we approach these two subjects in such dissimilar ways.