ICMI

Bulletin No. 47

December 1999

"Mathematics and Society:

Mathematical Education at the Frontier of the Centuries" -

A Letter from a Group of Mathematicians,

Members of the Organizing Committee

At the suggestion of the International Mathematical Union, supported by UNESCO, the year 2000, the last year of the 20th century, has been declared the year of Mathematics. The international community thus recognizes the increasingly important role of mathematics and mathematical education in the development of civilization of all mankind in the second millenium. The 9th International Congress on mathematical education will be held in July-August of 2000 in Japan. National and regional conferences focusing on the problems of mathematical education will take place in many countries. Russia must not be an exception. In September of 2000 will be held the All-Russian Conference on Mathematical Education, where scholars will discuss burning issues concerning teaching mathematics in public schools and institutions of higher learning. It should be noted that such conferences haven't taken place during the whole Soviet-Russian period.

The achievements of the Soviet-Russian mathematical science and mathematical education are universally known and generally recognized. It was precisely these accomplishments that formed the basis of real progress in the former Soviet Union. The Russian mathematical school had a great influence on the development of world science and education in the second half of the 20th century. Its disciples are working in all major research centers of our planet.

But today we are painfully aware of the deterioration of mathematical education in our society and decline of its mathematical culture. A number of the so-called innovations can break down traditions of the Russian educational system bringing forward the worst Western models to follow. The current economic collapse as a result of incompetent reforms has relegated the problems of education to the background. Within the educational system itself it is mathematics that appears to be in an unfavorable situation as an academic subject which is not consistent with market economy. In recent years there has been a constant reduction of academic hours spent on teaching mathematics and a decrease of the programs for the sake of simplicity. In fact, little or no scientific literature on modern mathematics is published, but without such publications it is almost impossible to train highly skilled specialists. Together with emigration of our leading scientists, foremost teachers and even gifted students, these tendencies can considerably accelerate the process of further degradation.

Many foreign scientists express deep concern over the present state of mathematical education in Russia. The Russian mathematical education was and still remains a vivid example for the whole world and its destruction can initiate degradation of mathematical education in all civilized nations.

The importance of mathematics and mathematical education in the modern world is difficult to overestimate. The sovereignty of a state, its security system, economics, science and technology depend on a knowledge of mathematics by its citizens. It is necessary to emphasize the significance of mass mathematical literacy rather than a small elitist approach. Fundamental mathematics is a corner-stone of modern science and engineering. Mathematical methods of inquiry constitute essential part of and contribute to practically all the sciences nowadays.

The history of mankind is reflected in the history of mathematics. Mathematics is a phenomenon of world culture and is the key to modern culture. The destruction of mathematical education may cause damage to the history and culture of all human race.

Poor mathematical education violates the basic human rights, in particular, freedom of choosing one's profession. Those who are not familiar with rigorous mathematical reasoning and proof can be easily manipulated by politicians through the mass media controlled by the government. Mathematically uneducated people are ready to follow submissively any false prophet or any weird prediction.

By the end of the 20th century the world has changed dramatically. There are huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons as well as new types of sophisticated armaments on our planet. Owing to the latest information technologies the Earth turned into a uniform, homogenous global cyberspace and information has become a weapon of mass annihilation of social consciousness. Nowadays the most profitable activities are those which are not of great benefit to man and sometimes even harmful. The science-based technologies which characterize postwar development have cut across the traditional boundaries between nations as well as the traditional compartmentalization of scientific knowledge. In addition to this picture there is contradictory economic interdependence, an accelerated flow of scientific and technical discoveries, which are changing public and private life with high speed, the destruction of environment. As a consequence of all these our planet has become fragile and unstable.

The responsibility for decision-making in the modern world is increasing many times.

Lack of mathematical knowledge of political leaders or managers of industrial financial corporations prevents them from thinking deductively, making rational decisions and foreseeing consequences of their actions even in the immediate future. This has the harmful effect of giving rise to local military conflicts, economic crisis, ecological and humanitarian disasters which finally end up as international problems.

One of the most promising directions in fundamental mathematics is mathematical modeling. The role of mathematical modeling is very significant. It is necessary to emphasize the importance of mathematical modeling prior to the adoption of any responsible decision.

Global computerization doesn't diminish the role of mathematical education, but quite the reverse, it has set science educational system new aims. Further deterioration of mathematical literacy and mathematical culture may turn man from a master of computer into a slave of it. The growing computer addiction is a widespread disease of the younger generation. Today we are already on the threshold of a peculiar kind of a computer dictatorship and maybe even a religion. By the end of the 20th century "God out of a machine" (Deus ex machina), that was invented in ancient times, has come into existence in the form of an infallible divine computer. Mathematical education, in particular, must aid the survival of Homo Sapiens preventing him to become Homo Computeric.

Now mathematics is one of the "ecologically safe" products. It seems plausible that the primary goal of mathematics in 21st century will be preserving and strengthening mental and physical health of the future generations. Mathematics must be recognized fully for what it is - one of the loveliest products of the human mind, one of the most dynamic forces in world culture.

We believe in man's intelligence. In spite of grave difficulties the Russian mathematicians are not discouraged, in fact, they are optimistic. We believe in a happy future of Russia and qualitative mathematical literacy of its citizens is a necessary condition for achieving it.

We appeal to all people who share our concern about the beginning of degradation of mathematical education in Russia, we call on different organizations and institutions, our colleagues and the scientists of the world to raise their voice in support of the All-Russian Conference in 2000 on "Mathematics and Society: Mathematical Education at the Frontier of the Centuries". We call for fruitful cooperation in the name of the noble ideas of humanism.

On behalf of the Organizing Committee :

N. S. Bakhvalov, academician, Russian Academy
of Sciences, head of the Computing Department of Moscow State University

E. A. Bunimavich, high school teacher of mathematics
at School no. 710 (Moscow), deputy of Moscow State Duma, coordinator

of culture, art and education

R. G. Khazankin, teacher of mathematics at
a computer science high school (Beloretsk)

B. P. Pigarev, high school teacher of mathematics
at School no. 710 (Moscow), Chairman of the Russian Association of

Teachers of Mathematics

V. A. Sadovnichy, academician, Russian Academy
of Sciences, rector of Lomonosov Moscow State University

I. F. Sharygin, member of the Executive Committee
of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI)

V. M. Tikhomirov, professor, head of the Department
of general problems of management of Moscow State University

I. V. Yashchenko, director of Moscow
Centre of Continuing Mathematical Education