Students say “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right. –Mathematician Paul Lockhart

I am working on some conference papers that touch on coding as a liberal art. While reviewing classics, like Stephenson’s In the Beginning Was the Command Line and Knuth’s approach to “Literate Programming,”

From the insightful and quirky “A Mathematician’s Lament,” by Paul Lockhart.

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.


Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy dream. “Of course!” he reassures himself, “No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How absurd!”


Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done—- I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul- crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.


The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.


[T]he first ever completely honest course catalog for K-12 mathematics:

LOWER SCHOOL MATH. The indoctrination begins. Students learn that mathematics is not something you do, but something that is done to you. Emphasis is placed on sitting still, filling out worksheets, and following directions. Children are expected to master a complex set of algorithms for manipulating Hindi symbols, unrelated to any real desire or curiosity on their part, and regarded only a few centuries ago as too difficult for the average adult. Multiplication tables are stressed, as are parents, teachers, and the kids themselves.

MIDDLE SCHOOL MATH. Students are taught to view mathematics as a set of procedures, akin to religious rites, which are eternal and set in stone. The holy tablets, or “Math Books,” are handed out, and the students learn to address the church elders as “they” (as in “What do they want here? Do they want me to divide?”) Contrived and artificial “word problems” will be introduced in order to make the mindless drudgery of arithmetic seem enjoyable by comparison.


Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity— to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs— you deny them mathematics itself.


“Take the triangle and rotate it around so it makes a four sided box inside the circle. Since the triangle got turned completely around, the sides of the box must be parallel, so it makes a parallelogram. But it can’t be a slanted box because both of its diagonals are diameters of the circle, so they’re equal, which means it must be an actual rectangle. That’s why the corner is always a right angle.”

Isn’t that just delightful? And the point isn’t whether this argument is any better than the other one as an idea, the point is that the idea comes across. (As a matter of fact, the idea of the first proof is quite pretty, albeit seen as through a glass, darkly.)