Tuesday, May 24, 2005

On math education

In a discussion of Nickels' Mathematics: Is God Silent?, I turned up this paragraph in the author's story of how the book came about:

I transferred to Fresno State College for my final two years. Although I still got As in every math class, my professors drilled me in dry formalism semester after semester. As the course material advanced beyond differential and integral calculus, it seemed like I had entered into an n dimensional domain of transcendent abstract analysis, aimed not at the Elysian fields of delight, but at the specter of the null and the void. These spiraling integrations into the void numbed and dizzied my mind. The phrase – integration into the void – was coined by the great 20th century Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til of whom we will hear more about later. I still managed, in 1973, to receive my undergraduate degree in mathematics (graduating summa cum laude – which proves that getting good grades does not mean that you have been properly educated). On graduation day I made an internal vow, “I will never open another math book again as long as I live.” Fortunately, I rescinded that vow some 5 years later. My response to four years of university training is a sad commentary on the state of university education then and, even more so, today.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Exam results

We're back and basically recovered from the jet lag -- the west-to-east travel is awful though the effects don't set in immediately.

Re: the crash course in conversational Mandarin, I'd have to say it was a success. The Chinese, particularly in Shanghai, told us we had very good pronunciation ("Perfect Beijing" they said). One indication of it was that when they got over the initial shock, they assumed we must be fluent and therefore launched a full salvo of Mandarin our way.

"Wǒ shuō de bù hǎo -- Wǒ huì shuō yī diǎn pǔtōng huà!"

"I do not speak well -- I can speak [only] a little Mandarin!"

It was amusing how startled the Chinese were when an American spoke Mandarin to them, even a short sentence like, "Excuse me, do you speak English?" The reaction was as if they'd reached down to pet the dog and the dog had said, "Good morning, sir!" in perfect Chinese. I suspect they have non-Asian foreigners mentally filed in the "Other" category, and while they didn't ignore us -- no, definitely did not -- they don't expect to interact with us much unless they're selling something or curious about the children.

John in particular held his own quite well. It was common to turn around from a museum exhibit or a street vendor to find John, a good eighteen inches taller than anyone nearby, explaining our family to a circle of admiring Chinese. Melanie also did very well bargaining with vendors and "good-willing" with the baby.

My own biggest adventure was negotiating the purchase of a euphonium in a Shanghai music store with the help of a calculator and Langensheidt's dictionary. ("New?" ... "No, sample." ... "I understand ... Case? Box?" ... "Wait …")

The downside for me was the experience of almost total illiteracy. Other than signs in pinyin and a few in English, there was little recourse to the printed word. I haven't felt this stupid since I was in kindergarten. In Europe, even if you don't speak the local language, you can usually take a guess based on cognates, Latin roots, or shared structures. Not in China -- you not only have no common language, you can't even guess a pronunciation from the characters on the sign.

I don't think we were alone in this, though. In fact, it seemed like the Chinese were often arguing among themselves over something or another. Melanie is convinced that they don't share a common language, either.