Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sharing Darkness

Fictional works may engage our empathy or libido, may present us with villains, characters we love to hate. I am not anti-fiction, and yet I do often worry about its abuse, as a way to channel caring away from the real world into various imaginary ones controlled by soap companies (the root meaning of "soap opera").

In contrast, I have been advocating entwining technical skills trainings with historical content, adding back time-lines where they may have gone missing. Consider the WW2 era Holocaust in Europe for example, and its ties to ideologies and literature emerging as a consequence of Darwin's theories.

The story has been told many times, but not usually in the context of studying the mathematics of record-keeping, or the language of SQL (structured query language). Edwin Black helped move us in that direction. Other scholars have followed his lead.

It's precisely when one is learning about "keeping tabs", collecting information about people in data warehouses, that it makes the most sense to investigate abuses, failed civilizations, inhumane applications of these kinds of technologies.

Schools with a reputation for "denying the Holocaust" or simply refusing to give it any focus, might want to try a different tack and actually pioneer a more direct approach. Study the Eugenics movement intently and relate it to the science of record-keeping. Use the topic of SQL as a bridge to these dark chapters, even as we investigate its power to do good.

One cannot change the past, but one might improve one's prospects for a better future by studying it, not forgetting it.

Am I saying a mathematics class should be an unrelenting tour of the worst parts of human history? No, but only because we should also tour the best parts.

History needs to be there though, smack in the middle of all that technical content.

Think of catalogs of pharmaceuticals, which talk about what they're good for, but also discuss side-effects, contra-indications. When we talk about record-keeping, we need to also talk about privacy issues, abuses of power.

The voting process involves record-keeping, databases.

The right to vote is hard won, for men, women, members of oppressed groups. Going over these travails, even while discussing the anatomy of a voting system, would be a more responsible kind of mathematics education than always focusing on fictional and/or imaginary realms.

Always bleeping over the dark side just feeds it more power, by keeping student awareness low and adding to the sense of a conspiracy of silence and/or apathy where nightmare circumstances have taken hold.

Advocating for serious-minded history in the mix is an extension of my "how things work" approach. A mathematics education should aim to explain how things work behind the scenes, often invisibly in ways undetected directly by the senses.

"How things break" is a subcategory of "how things work" and should focus on healing and repair, restoring quality, preventing future breakdowns. If mathematicians want a reputation for being more logical and cool headed, this should be evident in their manner of engaging with real world problems, not in their ability to exempt themselves from even considering our existential predicament as "humans in Universe".

As a radical math teacher, you could say it's part of my job description to make activists feel less lonely, less like the only kid on the block who remembers and feels moved to do something before it's too late.

One might deride such curricula as being "for bleeding hearts" but I prefer to think of them as suitable for present and future diplomats, and in this day and age, that's a highly distributed function, not confined to embassies.

Increasing the student exchange volume within the Global U somewhat depends on heightening awareness of time-lines, meaning one develops the skills to investigate new chronologies and connect them to what's already known.

One also needs to develop the skills to present what one has learned, effectively and economically. Technical skills enter in here, such as how to coherently summarize data, how to blog, how to use social networking media etc.