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Friday, August 27, 2010

Journey to the core

General education at my university is designed so as to have certain basic skills at its core. These are Writing, Mathematics, and Communication. The vast majority of academics would agree on the importance and foundational nature of these subjects though, of course, each would have view of the value of each.

Communication is obviously important for its utility in helping each of us to communicate what we know. Students gain knowledge over the course of their careers and it is important that they be able to convey what they know at the end of the experience. We need also remember that communication is a two-way street. By learning to communicate one's own ideas, a student is better able to understand the methods teachers use in communicating to them. They are better able to analyze what the teacher is saying.

Writing, of course, is obviously important as a means of communication, but, in addition to this, the process of writing well and employing convincing arguments cannot be separated from critical thinking. Creating an effective argument requires having a robust internal dialog. One must not only be able to create arguments but look for holes in those arguments and find ways to patch those holes or to discern they are un-patchable.

Then my area of specialty, mathematics, enters the fray. That mathematics is basic to the physical sciences no one will dispute. Indeed, given the shift in biology from the field to the lab, few would dispute that a knowledge of mathematics is necessary to the life sciences as well. Certainly few would argue against the utility of statistics in the social sciences and business. As one drifts more deeply into the humanities one meets not only doubt as to its value but outright hostility.

As I said, I am a mathematician and we are used to hostility, so perhaps it is not surprising that I believe mathematics is important to the humanities too, but I would also concede that those in the humanities might be better served by a different sort of mathematics than those in the sciences. I can appreciate music without knowing how to play the guitar, but I can get more out of a musical experience by being taught certain things. An artist need not be taught the technical details of complex variables in order to appreciate the hyperbolic plane.

We are on the verge of appointing a task force to study the mathematical needs on this campus. It grew out of our needs in assessing the mathematical component of general education but its scope is greater than this. Ultimately, it may provide mechanisms for the university to maximize the impact of mathematics on our campus.

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