[Edu-sig] Brainstorming about GNU Math

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Wed Mar 22 02:10:19 CET 2006

Of course "gnu math" is a pun on "new math", more formally known as
SMSG, and designed to ride a tsunami of cold war paranoia, when the
USA first started "falling behind" in science and technology, as
evidenced by Sputnik.  "New math" was supposed to turn out a new crop
of eggheads, prepared to keep the USA in the game, and you can't say
the effort failed entirely.  We got NASA and Apollo, and later The
Mouse in Orlando, all products of these post WWII curriculum reforms. 
However, there was never a huge buy-in among rank and file teachers,
who felt left out of the loop.  Plus SMSG had its own problems...

Rolling the scenario forward several decades, we've had the GNU/Linux
revolution and the advent of more generous licensing agreements,
complete with a new business ethic that deals kids in at the outset,
as wannabee space cadets, as junior engineers.  They quickly start
learning, and in a few short years are out of the gate as players,
spinning their own networks and lighting up the boards with new high
scores, news of old records broken and so forth.  The next generation
starts ahead of the previous one, if all goes according to plan. 
That's called a learning curve.  That's called future shock
(especially if folks can't handle it, and go flying into buildings or
whatever terrifying thing -- The Power of Nightmares is worth seeing
on this ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0430484/ )).

With GNU/Linux and falling hardware prices comes greater access to
sophisticated computing environments, such as only a cast of high
priests had known before.  The age of Turing Machines for Everyone had
arrived.  We'd be needing programs like CP4E to spread the love. 
Guido came up with a great language.  The die was cast.

Rolling forward some more, we have a big literature on file, but it's
not that well organized.  Hypertext glues it together, more than book
covers, although the shelf space devoted to Python and related topics
is respectable.  In the meantime, OO has become well-established, so
even if Python isn't your final destination, it's within the right
track system.  Switching to Java or C# is pretty easy, especially
given Jython and IronPython use these for guts.

As a Silicon Forest exec, my question is why non-OO problem solving,
as taught on the math track, has all this political clout, whereas
would be computer geeks have to drop out of school or sneak knowledge
when not in class.

Sure, there's some leakage, some osmosis, but for the most part it
seems there's a dike, a barrier, designed to keep computer programming
from "polluting" some purist tradition.  And it's not just programming
that's kept at bay, but computer graphics and animation.  The
pre-college mainstream remains strangely bereft of serious-minded
spatial geometry, even in districts that could afford the low-cost
diskless workstations or hand-me-down Pentiums.  No A & B modules.  No
hexapents.  What's the story here?

Well, I don't think here is the right place to recap my analysis, but
in gist:  overspecialization has bitten us in the rear.  This isn't a
new conclusion.  Bucky Fuller came to the same result.  Lack of
cross-disciplinary communication has hampered our ability to evolve
the curriculum at a sufficient rate.  We've fallen way behind.  Again.
 But this time, there's no "new math" to the rescue.  There's "gnu
math" instead.


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