Echoes from the Past, Looking to the Future

By Michael Pearson, Executive Director of the Mathematical Association of America

Janet Ray, a dear friend who was one of MAA’s representatives on the project team that launched the AMATYC ACCCESS program, recently sent me a copy of the seventh edition of a 19th century text, Elements of Algebra, advertised by its author James Thomson, as an “abridgment of Day’s Algebra adapted to the capacities of the young.”

The edition Jan sent along was printed in 1846, and is inscribed as “Papa’s Algebra that he went to school with, Townsend Vermont Academy.” Since the book comes from the library of Jan’s great-aunt, Bertha Ray, who retired in the 1930’s after serving as the principal of a school in Brooklyn, Jan reckons that the book was used by her great-grandfather.

The Preface of “Elements” opens with the statement that “Public opinion has pronounced the study of Algebra to be a desirable and important branch of popular education.” Mr. Thomson concludes his lengthy preface by noting that “it remains to his fellow teachers and an impartial public to decide” if he met his goal “to divest the study of algebra, once so formidable, of all its intricacy and repulsiveness; to illustrate its elementary principles so clearly, that any school-boy of ordinary capacity may understand and apply them; and thus to render this interesting and useful science more attractive to the young.”

The roughly 175 years since the first edition of Mr. Thomson’s work was published (1843) bear witness to the less than enthusiastic verdict of the “impartial public” to whom he appealed, which as far as I can tell remains largely indifferent if not hostile to the study of algebra at any level.

Among teachers, most of us continue to agree that the study of mathematics is worthwhile, and goes beyond utilitarian purposes. Further, most of us agree that development of conceptual understanding, as well as procedural fluency, go hand in hand, that both are essential elements in teaching and learning of mathematics.

There’s also recent evidence that the inherent value of knowing at least some mathematics -- baseline numeracy -- contributes to more effective decision making in multiple domains. I recently interviewed Ellen Peters, director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative at The Ohio State University, on this theme (see “Learn Math and Live Longer,” in the Aug/Sept issue of MAA FOCUS). It’s great to see evidence for improved critical thinking that those of us in the mathematical sciences have felt we bring to the table all along.

We also have an increasing body of evidence that supports the use of active learning strategies in classrooms at all levels. The recent publication of MAA’s Instructional Practices Guide provides information designed to improve outcomes for all students. As the authors note, “It is our responsibility to help our colleagues improve and to collectively succeed at teaching mathematics to all students so that our discipline realizes its full potential as a subject of beauty, of truth, and of empowerment for all.”

Just as Jan spent years honing her skills as a teacher of mathematics, and giving back to colleagues through the MAA and collaborative programs such as Project ACCCESS, the MAA community continues to develop programs and opportunities to build capacity “to advance the understanding of mathematics and its impact on our world.” It’s a great place to be!