Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Conference on alternative math did spark a war, after all

On Valentine's Day, I attended the conference on the alternative methods to teach mathematics. I was honored to stand on the same side as some top authorities of the Czech mathematics "establishment" who gradually realized what's going on.

Mr Milan Hejný's method is arguably the key "brand" in Czechia that is worshiped by those who want to reform the education of mathematics along the SJW lines, as in this 9-minute-long satirical video where a good old-fashioned teacher existentially suffers after she dares to tell her pupil that 2+2 isn't equal to 22. (The video ludicrously paints the old-fashioned teacher as a liberal and her critics as conservatives but I think that everyone who knows something about the real world knows that the reality is basically upside down.)

Advocates of Hejný's method seem to be universally brain-dead, they contributed nothing interesting to the conference, and there couldn't have been any meaningful conversation between the "two camps" over there. However, the conference exceeded my (and other people's) expectations, anyway. The number of ideas and observations from "our camp" was rich and diverse, I learned a lot, and I also hope that the people on our side have understood some things, too.

That was really what I have been secretly hoping for – not some unrealistic enlightenment of the SJWs – and I think that we came closer to that goal than expected.

So it was totally reasonable to assume that the conference would be just a one-day event that is forgotten immediately as it ends. But I think that the folks including the organizers themselves (and myself) have understood what is actually at stake better than they (or we) did before. Sometimes, we learned from people on our side. Sometimes, we learned something shocking from some answers that various people on our side "encouraged" the Hejný side to provide us with.

When we asked them various questions, Mr Hejný and his apologists explicitly repeated that it was not really necessary for mathematics teachers to know mathematics – among other incredible statements.

There are various recreational games involved in the method. They're random and some of them could be used in a sensible teacher's classroom, too. They may be fun and we agreed about it. Some of them are misguided and the missing accuracy of the problems and subtle errors in them and definitions is a problem, too. Also, all the textbooks are really "books of exercises" only. The kids don't really learn any "theory". I think it's another fatal problem.

Among the most shocking exercises, we may name "the animals of granddaddy Mr Forestguy" (for Czech readers: "zvířátka dědy Lesoně"). In those exercises, the kids are forced to memorize a ludicrously arbitrary list of numbers associated with animals such as a mouse, cat, goose, goat, and then solve exercises such as "are three mice plus a goose stronger than a goat?" They need to memorize some Chinese-style logos symbolizing the animals, too. Needless to say, the numbers have virtually nothing to do with any actual characteristics of the animals. It's just a part of the education that is meant to help the kids who love to memorize nonsense and to totally screw the mathematically talented kids who know very well that this whole category of "insights" and exercises is totally dumb, has nothing to do with mathematics, and who have literally "moral hurdles" that prevent them from memorizing this nonsense.

But the granddaddy's animals aren't the truly most threatening thing about the method. I think that the ideological underpinnings are the true key problem. The method wants to spread the opinion that the truth is always relative; errors should never be corrected by the teacher; it's always more important to whine that someone has insulted you than to care about the truth; mathematics isn't really needed and may be replaced by visual arts or civic education; and a dozen of similar things.

The main gap between the two camps is a deeply ideological, political, if not moral one.

Now, I am pretty sure that every single active defender of Hejný's method may be described as an SJW. The main philosophy is about the removal of any authority – such as the teacher's authority – and any attention paid to the objective truth. Also, there's a deeply rooted egalitarianism underneath this method. When kids sucked in mathematics (and others were better), it couldn't have been the weak kids' fault because all kids are equally good. It must have been due to the system, they claim, and the system must be reformed so that the weak kids are at the top instead – or at least everyone is equal.

With these radical views (well, deep misconceptions) and agendas, how could they not be SJWs? And this opinion of mine is supported by quite some real-world experience that I have accumulated. I believe that not a single person actively supporting Hejný's method has voted for Miloš Zeman, for example, who was reelected. And ex-president's son, Václav Klaus Jr, a chairman of the education committee in the Parliament, is surely considered a devil by everybody who supports Hejný's method – although Klaus' mostly negative attitude towards the method has been a bit murky up to recently (at least to me).

The other side, our side, isn't so well-defined politically. There are still lots of people who count themselves as members of the Prague Café, who also find it crazy that Zeman was re-elected, and who share lots of the political attitudes of the "intellectual Prague café-based" political groups – defined by their globalist, pro-EU, anti-Russian, and related traits. It's unavoidable that these political views are widespread on our side because most of the scholarly environment displays similar (basically "progressive") political attitudes. I think that it's just true that this side of ours is vastly less "radical" in spreading the SJW memes to every corner of the human activity. In particular, our side obviously doesn't want to agree that the Pythagorean theorem should be banned as a beacon of racism or stuff like that. It still respects some meritocracy.

The important question of the education reforms – and the fact that the education has been increasingly about indoctrination and less about hard education – has never become a defining question of any elections. If the topic were promoted to a central one in some elections, and I can remotely imagine that it could happen (because I know lots of people who are angry about the bogus humanities degrees and the NGOs that collect such people etc.), I am honestly uncertain which side would have a greater support.

On one hand, Hejný's method is a flagship of the SJWs and the SJWs are only supported by some 5-10 percent of the Czech voters. On the other hand, the correlation isn't perfect. I tend to think that it should mean that the support for Hejný's method among the voters is even lower than 5-10 percent. But it could mean the opposite thing, too. I really don't know. Most kids are "mostly negative" about mathematics, so if this is extrapolated to the adults, it could make it unavoidable that the side wanting "less mathematics" could automatically win. On the other hand, the mathematics-disliking adults no longer have to learn mathematics so they may feel more freedom to impose it on the kids. After all, it's fair – they had to learn it as well. ;-)

There are too many arguments on both sides – I don't know which side would be stronger.

At any rate, the key participants of the conference – the director of the Mathematics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, the chairman of the Czech Union of Mathematicians and Physicists, a Czech-Canadian mathematician, a top boss of mathematics education at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of the Charles University, and 1-2 more guys have gone to the Czech Parliament where they debated some lawmakers – those from the school committee led by Mr Klaus Jr.

Their main request was to make sure that the implications of Hejný's experiment are being tested. Our side is generally afraid of dropping mathematical abilities of the schoolkids that may inevitably follow from the propagation of this postmodern method which brags about lower requirements on the speed and the amount of mathematics that the kids learn. The method has been adopted by 800 out of 4,100 Czech elementary schools so far. The percentage is no longer negligible and it seems to keep on increasing.

Some of the lawmakers – those from ODS I voted for (Klaus Jr and Ms Majerová-Zahradníková); but also the former education minister Ms Valachová from social democracy (who is somewhat unusually for mathematics education and mandatory mathematics exams, despite her widely believed tight links to far left NGOs) – seemed to broadly agree with the requests of the top authorities of Czech mathematics. Some others, from the STAN (Mayor's apolitical movement) and the Pirates (a young people's technocratic, computer-focused party) disagreed and claimed that it's right to do unlimited untested experiments on the Czech schoolkids, otherwise the schools stagnate. Well, experiments are fine but you don't want to risk the knowledge of a whole generation of kids (and not even 1/2 of them) just to perform an experiment. Moreover, so far it's really wrong to call it an experiment because no one who spreads Hejný's method seems to care about the results (an experiment should be the collection of some results)!

These activities of the top Czech mathematics officials – who have probably understood the nature of the threat more than they did before the conference – did cause some reaction from the SJWs, however. So I was sent many links at ceskaskola (Czech School) dot cz, ucitelske-listy (Teachers' Letters) dot cz, and others from the advocates of Hejný's method. Yesterday, a teacher from Frýdek-Místek, a rather small town in Northern Moravia, wrote a diatribe denouncing the critics of Hejný's method and me in particular. One of his key complaints was that I dared to say and write – in my talk etc.
He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches. I added the most usual Czech addition: He who cannot teach, teaches gyms. That was particularly shocking for that guy (according to the web "rate your teacher", a populist "teacher" who teaches nothing to do the kids), especially because he's a teacher of mathematics and gyms. ;-) He wanted me to apologize for the quote – the quote is from Bernard Shaw, a Nobel prize winner in literature, of course, as you can see if you click at the hyperlink.

Today, a guy named Mr Oldřich Botlík published a rant in Lidové noviny (People's Newspapers), a major daily. He's a guy born in 1951 who got a degree in mathematics but as far as I can see, since the fall of communism (if not earlier), the only thing he has done was to speak for NGOs (such as Eduin.cz) that made the Czech education system increasingly non-meritocratic, loose, chaotic. He's also a defender of Hejný's method. And a hater of Klaus Jr. He may very well be among the top 3 people who are most responsible for the deterioration of the Czech schools in recent decades.

OK, this guy was obviously responding to some activities of "our camp" that tried to tame the propagation of Hejný's method. His diatribe was mostly composed of ad hominem attacks. Alumni of the Department of Mathematics and Physics of the Charles University (almost all of us belong to this group) shouldn't influence Czech schools, he argues, because they often suffer from some disorder on the Asperger spectrum, like Sheldon Cooper does. Instead of all these simple individuals, the Czech education of mathematics should listen to the likes of Penny who are complex, versatile geniuses, he basically argued. I kid you not.

It's been four hours since I read his text for the first time and I am still absolutely shocked by his breathtaking idiocy. Penny is lovable and I like her, too – although some my positive relationship is due to her ability to have caught some thinking patterns from the physicists, or at least her increased tolerance if not respect for their traits, values, and lifestyles.

But holy crap, Penny has otherwise been placed in the sitcom because she's the canonical stupid (relatively to all the scholarly types), totally practical blonde who has no idea about things like mathematics and science and who has absolutely no internal drive to study them. How could a sane person seriously suggest that folks like Penny should teach mathematics or decide about the teaching of mathematics? The answer is that a sane person simply cannot. She has absolutely no competence, ability, or desire to do such things. In fact, one could argue that despite her being so charming, she not only lacks the ability to do or teach mathematics. She lacks the ability to work with children, too. So what the hell is he talking about?

Sheldon Cooper is an idealized character who is smarter than everyone else in the sitcom and who is also much more loyal to the "moral etiquette" of a true scientist. He's the true beautiful mind – a much more beautiful one than John Nash or somebody. His unusual social behavior could be considered to be imperfect for the style recommended to the teachers. Yes, it's normal to say that people like him belong to the Asperger spectrum but this very assignment is not really a hard science, either.

But there are other characters. Leonard (physicist), Rajesh (astronomer), and Howard (an engineer). Or Barry (physicist). Or Amy or Bernadette, although they're biologists (they still know enough of mathematics from basic schools which is somewhat relevant for their jobs, too). There are lots of people in the sitcom who are still vastly more qualified than Penny to decide about the content and strategy of the teaching process of mathematics at schools. Sheldon, Leonard, and other obvious candidates ultimately know where the children should be heading. How could someone pick Penny as the right person? And how could he overhype her as a complex person? I don't think that Penny is a more complex person than Sheldon, something he claims. She's really very simple. That's a part of what makes her hot and intriguing, too. Botlík's claims are nothing else than the hardcore populism flattering unintelligent people – and Botlík has made his living out of this populism.

Mr Botlík has picked Sheldon as his target but it's clear that his actual targets were the top officials of the Czech mathematical establishment – and everyone who thinks like them. All meritocratic teachers who actually want the kids to know some mathematics, to have some passion for the truth, and related things. I think that when similar nasty attacks against mathematicians are published by nobodies from parasitic and toxic NGOs in the dailies, it will make the mathematicians more motivated to be active.

But I am still not sure who will win this war if one really explodes. God bless Czechia.

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