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If This be Treason...

by Ralph P. Boas, Northwestern University


I claim that there is a place, and a use, even for the solution of quartics by radicals, or Horner's method, or involutes and evolutes, or whatever your particular candidates for oblivion may be. Here are problems that might conceivably have to be solved; perhaps the methods are not the most practical ones; but that is not the point. The point is that in solving the problems the student gets practice in using the necessary mathematical tools, and gets it by doing something that has more motivation than mere drill.

It is the fashion to deprecate puzzle problems and artificial story problems. I think that there is a place for them too. Problems about mixing chemicals or sharing work, however unrealistic, give good practice and even have a good deal of popular appeal. It is absurd to claim that only "real" applications should be used to illustrate mathematical principles. Most of the real applications are too difficult and/or involve too many side issues. One begins the study of French with simple artificial sentences, not with the philosophical writings of M. Sartre. The traditional topics have persisted partly by mere inertia but partly because they still serve a real purpose, even if it is not their ostensible purpose. Let us keep this in mind when we are revising the curriculum.


Ralph Boas was Professor of Mathematics at Northwestern University and editor of The American Mathematical Monthly. This commentary is excerpted from The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 64, 1957, pp. 147-149.




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Last Update: 02/07/96