Building a Bridge to the Twentieth Century

Predictably, last week’s talk ran short of time, and we were forced to skip some slides. The most regrettable omission was a slide titled “How to Teach …”, the motivation for which was to talk about the man in the photograph above, and about the photograph.

Our approach to teaching is, shall we say, eccentric. We won’t comment on the effectiveness of our teaching but, if “method” is too strong a word, there is an underlying idea. This idea is best captured by Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing upon writing: “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent”. Even if it indicates one way to teach, however, Emerson’s quote is of course not a dictum on teaching. Teaching is communication, and every teacher has to determine for themselves how they can best communicate ideas to their students.

Which brings us, almost, to the man in the fuzzy photograph. For the twenty years we were involved in the popularisation of mathematics, including the giving of and arranging of presentations, we were privileged to witness a number of great teachers. The brilliant John Conway was a stand-out, of course, as was Art Benjamin. But there were also two Australian mathematicians that were truly and particularly memorable.

The first mathematician was Mike Deakin. We mentioned Mike in last week’s talk, as one of our go-to guys when we started LunchMaths at Monash, and he gave a number of beautiful talks. Before that, Mike was, for decades, an editor, proofreader, janitor and mega-contributor for Monash’s mathematics magazine, Function.

The other mathematician was, finally, the man in the fuzzy photograph above: that is E. R. Love, who was professor of mathematics at the University of Melbourne for about three hundred years. In 1992, when Professor Love was 80, Terry Mills encouraged us to invite Professor Love to give a talk to the mathematics department at LaTrobe, Bendigo. We did so and Professor Love accepted. Declining multiple offers to be driven, Professor Love took the train to Bendigo and gave an absolutely beautiful talk on Legendre functions. Afterwards, over lunch, Professor Love entertained all with stories of Cambridge in the 30s.

Why write about Mike Deakin and, especially, Professor Love? Well, why not, of course; Deakin and Love were great contributors to Australian mathematics and deserve to be remembered and honoured. There was a specific reason, however, why we thought they were relevant to our talk, and why we particularly regret not having included acknowledgment of Professor Love: they were great teachers in a manner ceasing to exist. They were great lecturers.

Mike Deakin, who was an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne and then a Masters student under Professor Love, reminisces here on Professor Love’s teaching:

Love, in particular, was a superb lecturer. It was said of him that he was a menace because he made his subject seem so straightforward and logical that one missed seeing its difficulties.

The point is not that Mike Deakin and Professor Love were popular lecturers; the point is that they lectured in a careful, scholarly manner that is being lost. Their lectures had no gimmicks, had none of the crazy showmanship of the Mathologer, or of the writer of this blog. They simply lectured, conveying carefully crafted ideas to an audience willing and keen to listen. And, the point is that almost no one now recognises this, or cares, or can even properly understand. Almost no one under the age of fifty can realise that what is being lost is an art form, and an extremely beautiful and valuable one.

The title of this blog post is a play on Neil Postman‘s book titled Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, which was in turn a play on a Clintonism. Postman’s excellent, and final, book was written in 1999. It was concerned with society’s inability to understand and to cope with technology, and the consequent loss of tradition and authority, of wisdom and plain meaning. Subtitled How the Past can Improve our Future, Postman’s book argued that we should look back to the 18th century, to the Enlightenment, for guidance into the future.

And now, twenty years later? The idea of building a bridge to the eighteenth century seems utterly fantastic, and perhaps always was. Twenty years on, and there is scarcely a memory of the twentieth century. The photo above was the best, the only photo we could find of Professor Love.

Mike Deakin and E. R. Love are dead, and they are being forgotten. The scholarly tradition they represented, the gift they gave, is being lost. And no one cares.

UPDATE

Gareth Ainsworth has contacted us, noting that Scotch College had an obituary for E. R. Love, which included a short biography and a photograph.

10 Replies to “Building a Bridge to the Twentieth Century”

  1. Judging by their titles, two other books by Postman seem interesting:
    End of education: Redefining the values of schools
    Teaching as a subversive activity

  2. Actually Marty – I care.

    But more than that, I’ve tried to carry on one of the greatest examples of brilliant teaching I have ever seen. In my third year of undergraduate Mathematics I took Hyam Rubenstien’s class on Algebra and one lesson on Galois theory really stands out.

    He was working on an example and I didn’t know why at the time, but I thought he had made a mistake. The class (like many third year pure Mathematics classes) was very small, so I just asked, “is that correct?”

    Now, many of the teachers I have had would have said something along the lines of “yes, of course” and moved on, but this professor did something which has stayed with me forever. He stopped, took a few steps back and looked at his work with a critical eye.

    After a minute of silence another student offered, “what if you construct a random point P…” at which point the professor amended his diagram, turned back to me and said, “it is correct, but not for the reason I thought.”

    This willingness to *think* and the not needing to appear to know everything made Professor Rubenstein a brilliant teacher in my view.

    Unfortunately, in the two years I spent “training” as a mathematics teacher, the mechanics of “how to teach” was seldom more than a lesson on how to push the correct sequence of buttons on the new calculators (pre-CAS days as well!)

    Apologies for the rant, your main point is still valid but I remain adamant: I care.

    1. RF, I contemplated my “no one cares” line and left it in, knowing that it is of course wrong. The meaning of the line is that our society in its vast majority and as a whole does not care. We have no memory, even for memory.

      1. Thanks Marty – I do agree entirely with your sentiment and at universities it is probably much, much more rapidly accelerating. I’ve heard stories from the university lecturers in my own family.

        It reinforces my gratitude for having (a few) good lecturers in my own undergraduate experience. They have long since retired and are probably not spoken about much, which is basically proving your point.

    2. What particularly stuck me about your comment is the reference to “one lesson on Galois theory really stands out”. It is interesting that one lesson can have a great impact on one person.

      There is a story about a student of S.S. Chern – a famous mathematician in the US. The student was so impressed in a lecture, that he said to himself “If ever I win the lottery, I will donate the money to honour of Dr Chern.” And sure enough …

      https://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/96legacy/releases.96/14351.html

  3. I care, and I try to honour their memory (as well as many others) by practicing what I have learnt. And by teaching my students properly. I think they would appreciate and find value in that.

    I’m under 50. I think you’re right though. Myself and the handful of others are thin on the ground, and it seems as though the truly important people in education can’t wait for lecturing to be essentially abolished as a form of instruction.

    As long as it remains in my control, I’m not going to give up lecturing (I realise the irony of writing this during the times of COVID, but the sentiment remains) while I have a job. Should be to 2058, 2060, depending on how retirement age shapes up. Maybe I’ll start a blog (for important people to ignore) then too.

    1. Glen, see my reply to RF. Specifically, lecturing is dying, as you confirm, but the issue is much broader than that. The general issue is the loss of attention, the decline in the media of attention, and the decline of the desire to attend. The medium is the message, and the message is Twitter.

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