In Sackville Park, in Manchester, England, a dog once played fetch with a statue. The heroes of England have long been memorialized in bronze, gesturing, with the authority of monarchs and military men, in mighty poses on giant slabs of granite; but this statue is simple. It is but a man―a meek, demure-looking fellow―humbly sitting on a park bench, holding a poisoned apple.
The raised letters adorning the back of the bench display the man’s name, and, under his name, one finds the letters: “IEKYF RQMSI ADXUO KVKZC GUBJ”―this man broke Nazi codes.
The inscription beneath the statue reads:
“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth
but supreme beauty, a beauty cold and austere
like that of sculpture.” ― Bertrand Russell
June 23 came, and mathematics continues to be wrongly viewed: few people in public education paused to recognize the life and work of Alan Turing on the centenary of his birth on this date. Despite, as Berkeley professor Edward Frenkel has noted, the universal use of algorithms to keep our bank accounts safe, and the obvious fact that we are not speaking German, what schoolchild knows Turing’s name? The most famous mathematician is less famous than the runner-up in American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent.
To rectify this, we have tried, with some limited success, to bring research-level mathematics into public high schools. By our estimate, only 2 pi research mathematicians in the country even care about our public schools―this is a round figure―and even then usually only when they’re retirement-age, like Berkeley logician Leon Henkin, or when their kids encounter less-than-prepared math teachers in school, like Harvard’s Wilfried Schmid.
When one of us invited to his school an award-winning research mathematician such as Edward Frenkel, a former Harvard professor who received full tenure at Berkeley at 28, there was a firestorm.
When we tried to initiate students to the war-winning mathematics of the likes of Alan Turing, the Board of Regents stepped in to abort the program at conception, saying that its $95,000 price tag was more than the state could afford―this from the people who spent $32 million on test materials featuring talking pineapples. Yet those same Regents’ near panic act in applying for federal “Race to the Top” money was reminiscent of a Three Stooges slapstick comedy.
Imagine the possibilities if a defense contractor like Raytheon or the Department of Homeland Security were to underwrite a course that would expose the best and the brightest in ordinary public schools to research mathematicians.
There would be blood, cries of elitism. Of course, you get Turings precisely as a product of an elite education, at Cambridge University in his case. What seems to get lost in the education reform debate today is: What are we doing for the students who really want to work, who have the ability and discipline to do rigorous research at the high-school level? We must devote as much time to our math program as we do to the athletic program.
While we can and should spend whatever is necessary to make sure no child is left behind (a phrase, we believe, coined by New York State Regent Ena Farley, although with different intent), what teacher could even recognize a Turing in our crazed test-everyone state? What teacher could risk taking time to work with a young Turing, when the all-consuming test is evaluating her weaker students―and her? Teaching to the test will ensure there are no Turings to be honored in the future―to the detriment of the kids, the schools, and humanity.
Leonard DiCaprio’s evident effort to make a film about Turing, and TV star Danica McKellar’s New York Times best-selling math textbooks notwithstanding, in the main we are like the dog in Manchester, not understanding why our repeated attempts to improve math education―a ponderous, immobile object―are failing: In the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, America ranked 31st in math out of 65 countries or country-sized entities.
However, if the Manchester dog had had its day and could read human script, it would have been awed by who sat before it, a man contemplating the incalculable, a submarine battle of unities and negation raging in his depths:
Alan Mathison Turing
Father of Computer Science
Victim of Prejudice
Instead, the dog rolls around in the warm grass, pleasantly oblivious.
Mr. Ronald O. Ross is superintendent of the Greenburgh Central 7 School District, where Professor Jonathan David Farley is a mathematics consultant. Mr. Gregory Labonte is a computer science student from the University of Maine.