Saturday, October 16, 2010

Benoît Mandelbrot (1924 - 2010) and Education Reform

From A maverick's apprenticeship:
It was then and there that a gift was revealed. During high school and the wandering year and a half that followed, I became intimately familiar with a myriad of geometric shapes that I could instantly identify when even a hint of their presence occurred in a problem. “Le Père Coissard,” our marvelous mathematics professor, would read a list of questions in algebra and analytic geometry. I was not only listening to him but also to another voice. Having made a drawing, I nearly always felt that it missed something, was aesthetically incomplete. For example, it would improve by some projection or inversion with respect to some circle. After a few transformations of this sort, almost every shape became more harmonious. The Ancient Greeks would have called the new shape “symmetric” and in due time symmetry was to become central to my work. Completing this playful activity made impossibly difficult problems become obvious by inspection. The needed algebra could always be filled in later. I could also evaluate complicated integrals by relating them to familiar shapes.

I was cheating but my strange performance never broke any written rule. Everyone else was training towards speed and accuracy in algebra and reduction of complicated integrals; I managed to be examined on the basis of speed and good taste in translating algebra back into geometry and then thinking in terms of geometrical shapes.

Where did my gift come from? One cannot unscramble nature from nurture but there are clues. My uncle lived a double life as weekday mathematician and Sunday painter. My gift for shapes might have been destroyed, were it not for the unplanned complication of my life during childhood and the War. Becoming more fluent at manipulating formulas might have harmed this gift. And the absence of regular schooling influenced many life choices, but ended up not as a handicap but as a boon.
I realize we can't have an educational system focused entirely on the occasional Mandelbrot, but I can't help but wonder how the great man would have fared in the rigid, metric-driven system we're headed toward.

(also posted at Education and Statistics)

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