Math Education: October

One of the things that attracted me to my thesis topic last spring was the lack of writing on the history of math education. There have been plenty of books about American education reform in the 20th century, but very few about the specific place of mathematics in that history. This month, I finally found two histories (an article in an edited collection and a graduate dissertation) on math education reform and was able to compare their analyses with my own. This was very helpful in clarifying my thoughts and leading me toward some important insights. I think I’m finally ready to try putting my thesis statement into words:

Historians tend to think of early 20th century math education as a conflict between mental discipline (the old style of teaching math in order to train one’s brain in the abstract) and vocationalism (the new style of teaching the specific math skills that people will need in their careers). I think that there was an equally important third option in this debate, humanism, which focused on the role mathematics plays in human life and the history of civilization. I want my paper to argue that this math humanism was meaningfully different from both the traditional mental discipline paradigm and the new focus on vocational training, and that it deserves a bigger place in the history of math education.

At this point, I am in the middle of putting together an outline for the paper. I have been thinking about this for a long time, but there are a few areas that I think need to be more fully fleshed out. My biggest difficulty here is that it’s hard to predict exactly how much space each topic will take up and how much will actually fit in the thesis: I wouldn’t be surprised if my first draft goes significantly longer than expected, but it’s hard to say before I’ve started writing. Overall, I am happy with the progress I’ve made so far and I’m excited to move into the writing process over the next few weeks.