'Amazing' Calculus

Saturday 9 May 2015

Even from the narrow view of just considering the syllabus contents for Maths HL & Maths SL, it is clear that the study of calculus is a very important component of both courses - it is the 'largest' syllabus topic in both courses in terms of recommended teaching hours. But I think it's beneficial to all students to gain a wider view of the importance of the calculus - both as a feat of human ingenuity and as a very effective tool for solving a wide range of problems.

Recently, I stumbled across a YouTube video (below) showing part of an interview with the very successful British novelist Ian McEwan in which he was asked about the difference between the humanities and the sciences - i.e. what he thought about the status of the "two cultures" debate that has been going on ever since C.P. Snow's famous 1959 lecture about the growing gulf between intellectuals in the humanities and scientists. I came across the video as I was preparing for a Theory of Knowledge lesson in which I wanted students to engage in a "two cultures" class discussion.

It was very interesting to hear McEwan admit to some 'intellectual shame' that, in his opinion, studying a humanities subject is not nearly as difficult or challenging as studying mathematics or a science. He was being interviewed after having taught literature for a few months at the California University of Technology (CalTech) which is one of the premiere universities in the USA for maths and the sciences.

McEwan felt that university students in the humanities are missing out by not being required to get their "mind around a subject like calculus which is quite tough - but it's an amazing adventure."  As a maths teacher, it was very reassuring to hear a person who has gained fame and riches in the arts proclaim that calculus is an "amazing adventure", and that it was fascinating that "a guy in a wig in the 18th century thought this up on how you'd describe the changing state of something ... amazing."

Great to hear a 'non-maths' person support the idea that someone who pursues an expertise in the humanities should still make an effort - and enjoy and benefit from - studying some mathematics. As McEwan said - why not; experts in maths and the sciences are often very knowledgeable and interested in the arts - so, why not the other way around.



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