I have a heavy post coming very soon, but it seems worthwhile first getting in this quick, light one.
Once upon a time, before going off the rails, I was a (semi)regular mathematician. I proved theorems and stuff like that. I was a committed lecturer and, with all due humility, a very good lecturer, but I had no specific interest in “mathematics education” and I knew nothing about school mathematics. That began to change around twenty years ago when, back in Melbourne, I somewhat randomly began talking to mathematics teachers. I soon realised that most Victorian mathematics teachers, even very dedicated ones, knew little mathematics and understood less. I began giving talks to teachers and then public talks, and I discovered the obvious about myself: I am significantly better at telling jokes than proving theorems. Burkard then appeared and it all took off, first with the popularisation, which Burkard has continued, and now with my gadflying. Some years earlier, however, before all this began, I bumped into my future occupation, and into a maths ed titan. This is the story of that bump.
In the mid 90s I attended a lecture at Melbourne University. I think it was part of a mathematics conference, but this particular lecture was somehow singled out as special and was on mathematics education. I cannot remember why I attended; I cannot remember the specific topic and I had never heard of the speaker.
I arrived late, well into the lecture. It was being held in the main, large theatre of the mathematics department (Theatre A), and the theatre was not packed but it was crowded. My assumption, perhaps due to the unfamiliarity of the faces, was that the audience consisted largely of teachers. Whoever they were, they did not appear to be pleased. There were mumbled frowns as the speaker spoke.
The speaker was calm but strong. He spoke clearly and measuredly, choosing his words with evident care. He seemed aware of the tension, of disagreement within the audience, but seemed not at all perturbed by it. He answered some rather direct, if not accusatory, questions from the audience in a polite but equally direct manner.
I remember nothing of the content of the lecture, except for a single line. At some point, possibly in response to a question/accusation, the speaker pronounced,
“Mathematics textbooks from fifty years ago were much better than they are now.”
Of course I don’t remember the precise wording, which was probably more careful and more elegant. Perhaps there was some specification of the textbooks being compared, or the manner of their comparison. Perhaps it was textbooks from a hundred years ago. Perhaps the “much” was not so strongly emphasised. But you get the gist, and so did the audience. There was outrage. The mumbled frowns turned to loud denials.
The speaker was not remotely perturbed by this. He seemed not at all surprised by the reaction, and he responded politely but firmly. I cannot remember his response in any detail, but I can remember the general message: I’m sorry, but I cannot change the facts for you.
I remember very clearly my reaction to all this: “Huh!”
I was struck by the speaker’s claim about old textbooks; I think that was the first time I had heard a clear claim that school education might be going backwards, and significantly so. I was astonished by the audience’s reaction, my first indication that mathematics education had “camps”, that there were areas of strong dispute. And I was impressed by the speaker, his clear and thoughtful manner of speaking, and his composure in the face of strong public disagreement.
The lecture stuck with me but not the name of the lecturer. I guess I knew his name at the time but definitely not as time passed. Until, a couple years ago, it occurred to me. In 2021, while fighting the guerrilla war over ACARA, I mentioned the lecture to Tony Guttmann and to another Tony. Nothing could be confirmed, but it became pretty clear in my mind: the speaker who had so impressed me and who introduced to me a new, fertile ground of dispute, was, very probably, Tony Gardiner.