We next studied the majestic harmony of Platonic solids using dice. And I told the kids about the curved shapes (such as Riemann surfaces) and the three-dimensional sphere that give us glimpses into the fabric of our universe.
These are portals into the magic world of modern math, starting points as surely as addition, subtraction and fractions are starting points. The added bonus is that they give us a perfect antidote to the common perception of the subject as stale and boring.
Of course, we still need to teach students multiplication tables, fractions and Euclidean geometry. But what if we spent just 20 percent of class time opening students’ eyes to the power and exquisite harmony of modern math? What if we showed them how these fascinating concepts apply to the real world, how the abstract meets the concrete? This would feed their natural curiosity, motivate them to study more and inspire them to engage math beyond the basic requirements — surely a more efficient way to spend class time than mindless memorization in preparation for standardized tests.
In my experience, kids are ready for this. It’s the adults that are hesitant. It’s not their fault — our math education is broken. But we have to take charge and finally break this vicious circle. With help from professional mathematicians, all of us should make an effort to learn something about the true masterpieces of mathematics, to be able to see big-picture math, the way we see art, literature and other sciences. We owe this to the next generations.
If we succeed, we will stop treating this crucial subject as if it were the equivalent of painting a fence, and we will do away with the question, why study math?
Edward Frenkel is a mathematics professor at UC Berkeley and the author of “Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.