The Past is a Foreign Country

We’ll fill one more gap from our presentation. Our previous gap-fill was on Professor E. R. Love and the disappearing art of lecturing. The past is a foreign country and, indeed, they do things differently there. This post is about the past and that foreign country. The country is called China.

The above photo is of a Nanjing school, the sister to our daughters’ school here in Melbourne. It is considered a good public school, but no more than that, and the photo is of a Year 5 class. What does one notice? What does one notice, that is, apart from the algebra and the general formulae, material that Australia typically covers, thinly and badly, in around Year 8?

There is no colour. The room is dressed in drab tiles and off-white walls. There are no posters. There’s just rows of students at their desks, and a teacher up front with nothing but an overhead projector and a blackboard. What a Hell.

It’s a Hell we would kill for.

The photo is of a class, of a teacher teaching, of students learning. The students are respectful and attentive. They are undistracted, in no small part because there is nothing to invite distraction. It may not be apparent from the photo but was obvious from our observations, the students also enjoyed and appreciated the class. They were happy and engaged, and the teacher was engaged with them. The students presented their work and asked questions, and the teacher responded and, when need be, corrected. She was kind, and she was firm. The class had a purpose and everyone clearly understood and appreciated that purpose.

The Nanjing school is not just a Hell we would kill for, it’s a Hell we know very well. The Nanjing class reminded us of nothing as much as our primary school from the 60s. Macleod State School was completely ordinary, just another cheap, flung-up middle class Melbourne school. It had grey walls and desks in rows, and hilariously bad heating. It also had bullies and authoritarian assholes and corporal punishment, and the worst teacher we ever experienced or ever witnessed.

Macleod State School also had classes where the teacher was the boss and was, properly, respected. There was a clear and meaningful curriculum. The teachers were expected to, and generally wished to, teach the curriculum. The students were expected to and generally wished to, learn the curriculum. The students also had very little say in the matter. The school had a purpose, a proper purpose, and in general everyone went about that purpose in a thoughtless and efficient manner.

The past is a foreign country.

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.


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

Video: Mathematics in Hell

Below is the video of our recent LunchMaths talk. You can comment/correct below and/or at the YouTube link.

A big thanks to Lawrence and Emma-Jane for arranging the talk, and for making the zooming as painless as possible. A couple of aspects that I intended to talk about, and some probably valuable clarification, were only covered in the Q and A. I’ll leave it be except in reply to comments, except for one aspect that I really regret not getting to and which I’ll cover in a separate post ASAP.

Zooming into Friday: Mathematics in Hell

Because we’re so in love with technology, and because we’re so short of things to do and, mainly, because we’re so, so stupid, we’ve agreed to give a LunchMaths/MUMS talk via Zoom this Friday.

The details are below, and this link is supposed to work. Attempt to enter at your own risk.

UPDATE (24/08) 

The video of the talk has been uploaded and can be viewed on YouTube and/or on this post.