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Mathematics Isn't Serious Stuff, as Lewis Carroll Demonstrates


Carroll opposed the seriousness of teaching with the lightness of humor, even when it was an apparently complicated subject like math.

Mathematics has a bad reputation. Many consider them to be difficult, inaccessible, pointlessly complicated. Sometimes they’re viewed as the final trigger of insanity and even more frequently, mundanely, they are guilty of more than a single dull afternoon for adolescents, wasted flipping through pages of a notebook book when outside the sun was shining and the wind was blowing. This is naturally false or at least imprecise.

As is the case with other matters, here we find a mistaken perspective. Mathematics can be like this when they are superficially judged; when a teacher lets their weight fall on young children or adolescents who are unable to carry it. Would it make any difference, if, in turn, they began to teach the amazing side of this abstract science? By teaching that this is the secret language that traverses the world and opens the horizon to new and even more surprising ones? What would happen if our guide to that universe were Lewis Carroll, one of the most eccentric minds of all time?

In 1879, the famous author of Alice in Wonderland, gave the press a book entitled Euclid and his Modern Rivals, a play with an unexpected geometrical thematic. Widely speaking, Carroll defended Euclidian ideas corresponding to the plains and the forms with the purpose using his drama and its geometrical foundations to teach.

drawing of Alice in Wonderland

Carroll’s intellectual sharpness allowed him to observe one of the most common deficiencies of teaching: his apparently unending capacity to make any type of knowledge tedious. Concerning this the author wrote:

In one respect this book is an experiment, and may chance to prove a failure: I mean that I have not thought it necessary to maintain throughout the gravity of style which scientific writers usually affect, and which has somehow come to be regarded as an ‘inseparable accident’ of scientific teaching. I never could quite see the reasonableness of this immemorial law: subjects there are, no doubt, which are in their essence too serious to admit of any lightness of treatment—but I cannot recognize Geometry as one of them. Nevertheless it will, I trust, be found that I have permitted myself a glimpse of the comic side of things only at fitting seasons, when the tired reader might well crave a moment’s breathing-space, and not on any occasion where it could endanger the continuity of a line of argument.

In this sense, it could be argued that Carroll was smarter than most mathematicians who could boast about possessing said quality –– Or, at least, more practical. What use is a masterpiece if it is left to collect dust in a dark corner? What is the point of having the scientific world praise Euclid’s if a common person is incapable of being awed by the genius of his proposals? Carroll concludes:

In furtherance of the great cause which I have at heart—the vindication of Euclid’s masterpiece—I am content to run some risk; thinking it far better that the purchaser of this little book should read it, though it be with a smile, than that, with the deepest conviction of its seriousness of purpose, he should leave it unopened on the shelf.

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