André Weil on teaching and the future of mathematics

Below we give four examples of André Weil's writings on the teaching of mathematics and four extracts from his thoughts on the history of mathematics. These come from the following two papers:

1. André Weil, Mathematical Teaching in Universities, The American Mathematical Monthly 61 (1) (1954), 34-36.

2. André Weil, The Future of Mathematics, The American Mathematical Monthly 57 (5) (1950), 295-306.

1. Weil's thoughts on teaching mathematics.

These extracts are taken from Mathematical Teaching in Universities (1954).

1.1. University teaching in mathematics should: (a) answer the requirements of all those who need mathematics for practical purposes; (b) train specialists in the subject; (c) give to all students that intellectual and moral training which any University, worthy of the name, has the duty to impart. These objects are not contradictory but complementary to each other. Thus, a training for practical purposes can be made to play the same part in mathematics as experiments play in physics or chemistry. Thus again, personal and independent thinking cannot be encouraged without at the same time fostering the spirit of research.

1.2. The study of mathematics, as well as of any other science, consists in the acquisition of useful reflexes and in that of independent habits of thought. The acquisition of useful reflexes should never be separated from the perception of their usefulness. It follows that problem-solving should never be practised for its own sake; and particularly tricky problems must be excluded altogether. The purpose of problems is twofold; either to drill the student in the application of some method of special importance, or to develop his originality by guiding him along some new path. Drill is essentially a school-method, and ought to become unnecessary at the final stages of University teaching.

1.3. Knowledge of a proof means the understanding of its machinery and the ability to reconstruct it. This implies: (a) perfect correctness in the definitions; (b) a faculty of connecting a given question with the general ideas underlying it; (c) a perception of the logical nature of any proof. The teacher should therefore always follow, not the quickest nor even the most elegant method, but the method which is related to the most general principles. He should also point out everywhere the relation between the various elements of the hypothesis and the conclusion; students must be accustomed to draw a sharp distinction between premises and conclusion, between necessary and sufficient conditions, between a theorem and its converse.

1.4. The teaching of mathematics must be a source of intellectual excitement. This can be achieved, at the higher stages, by taking the student to the brink of the unknown; at earlier stages, by making him solve for himself questions of theoretical or practical importance.

2. Weil on the future of mathematics.

These extracts are taken from The Future of Mathematics (1950). Note: This was written in 1946 just after the end of World War II.

2.1. "At one time," says Poincaré in his Rome conference on the future of mathematics, "there were prophets of misfortune; they reiterated that all the problems had been solved, that after them there would be nothing but gleanings left.... " "But," he added, "the pessimists have always been compelled to retreat . . . so that I believe there are none left to-day." Our faith in progress, our belief in the future of our civilization are no longer as strong; they have been too rudely shaken by brutal shocks. To us, it hardly seems legitimate to "extrapolate" from the past and present to the future, as Poincaré did not hesitate to do. If the mathematician is asked to express himself as to the future of his science, he has a right to raise the preliminary question: what kind of future is mankind preparing for itself? Are our modes of thought, fruits of the sustained efforts of the last four or five millennia, anything more than a vanishing flash? If, unwilling to stumble into metaphysics, one should prefer to remain on the hardly more solid ground of history, the same questions reappear, although in different guise: are we witnessing the beginning of a new eclipse of civilization? Rather than to abandon ourselves to the selfish joys of creative work, is it not our duty to put the essential elements of our culture in order, for the mere purpose of preserving it, so that at the dawn of a new Renaissance, our descendants may one day find them intact?

2.2. ... be it strength or weakness, mathematics is not a science that prospers on details, painstakingly collected in the course of a long career, on patient reading, on observations or on filing cards, amassed one by one so as to form a bundle from which an idea will ultimately come forth. Perhaps it is more true in mathematics than in any other branch of knowledge that the idea comes forth in full armour from the brain of the creator. Moreover, mathematical talent usually shows itself at an early age; and the workers of the second rank play a smaller role in it than elsewhere, the role of a sounding board for sounds in whose production they had no part. There are examples to show that in mathematics an old person can do useful work, even inspired work; but they are rare, and each case fills us with wonder and admiration. Therefore, if mathematics is to continue to exist in the way in which it has manifested itself to its votaries until now, the technical complications with which more than one of its subjects is now studded, must be superficial or of only temporary character; in the future, as in the past, the great ideas must be simplifying ideas, the creator must always be one who clarifies, for himself and for others, the most complicated tissues of formulas and concepts.

2.3. It is quite likely that the contemporaries of Apollonius for example, or those of Lagrange, were familiar with the same feeling of growing complexity which tends to overwhelm us to-day. It is undoubtedly true that the modern mathematician does not know certain details of the theory of conic sections as well as Apollonius did, or as a candidate for a French competitive examination, but this does not lead any one to think that the theory of conic sections should form an autonomous science. Perhaps the same fate is in store for some of the theories of which we are proudest. The unity of mathematics would not be threatened by such an occurrence

2.4. ... if, as Panurge, we ask the oracle questions which are too indiscreet, the oracle will answer us as it did Panurge: Trinck! This advice the mathematician follows gladly, pleased as he is to believe that he will be able to slake his thirst at the very sources of knowledge, convinced as he is that they will always continue to pour forth, pure and abundant, while others have to have recourse to the muddy streams of a sordid reality. If he be reproached with the haughtiness of his attitude, if he be summoned to do his part, if he be asked why he persists on the high glaciers whither no one but his own kind can follow him, he will answer, with Jacobi: For the honour of the human spirit.

JOC/EFR November 2014

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