Saturday, November 23, 2013


Philokalia (Gk. φιλοκαλία): love of the beautiful, the good

There is a certain, I would say unfortunate, trend that has occurred in both mathematics and music education during my teaching career that has really begun to bother me recently.  While on the surface is appears as thought they are very different trends, I would say that at their root they are, in fact, the same.  Before I get started, though, full disclosure: I am also certified to teach high school music, and spent the first 10+ years of my career teaching both math and music, as well as directing theatre.  

In music education, the trend has been to make almost everything a competition.  On one side, I understand the need to win competitions, because that makes it easier to justify the existence of the music program at the school.  To be clear, I think that the need to justify the role of the performing arts in education is absurd, but right or not the need is there.  What this can lead  to is a band or choir working on much less music for a much longer time with the goal being to make the performance perfect, since perfection is essentially what it takes to  win competitions.  What can be lost along the way, however, is the inherent aesthetic beauty of the music itself.  The focus changes from moving the audience to impressing the judges.  And in my opinion that is not a good thing.  In many instances there is a need for greater balance between being competition ready and just playing the music.

In mathematics education, there has been a push toward making sure the mathematics being taught is useful.  If the content is not immediately and obviously applicable to the everyday life of the student, then it is not important, or at the very least not as important as that which is applicable.  What gets lost along the way is the inherent beauty of the subject and the joy of just solving the puzzle.  My graduate degrees are in pure mathematics, so I find it fun to take the pieces, discover the patterns, and "play the game".  Don't get me wrong: I understand the need to show the kids that math is useful, and that this usefulness can be a great motivator.  But one of the things we tried to put into the exercises we created as we built the course was a balance between the basic mechanics, the applications, and the "math for the sake of the math".  And what's amazing is how the kids actually appreciate and enjoy the math for the sake of the math.  

In both math and music, we have, in many ways, abandoned the beautiful for the useful.  And while I understand the need for the useful, I firmly believe that we need to rediscover a love of the beautiful.  

1 comment:

  1. I love math for its own sake, and I think it is beautiful. But most people I encounter don't seem to feel the same way, and I've never succeeded at explaining why anything is beautiful, whether it's math or art or science. So I'm wondering - are you just good at helping your students see the beauty in math, or do you have only the mathematically-inclined kids, or what?