A documentary on the teaching of maths that impressively contrives not to send its audience back to school – while doing just that.
There is a joke amongst mathematicians that goes like this:
Q. How do you know if a mathematician is an extrovert?
A. He looks at your shoes rather than his own.
It seems that the film-makers of HOW I CAME TO HATE MATHS might curiously have had this in mind when making the film. So many shots begin at the interviewee’s feet, and focus on shoes. But the purpose of this film is, of course, to dispel such stereotypes, to reveal the excitement and importance of mathematics, and the charisma and humour of (at least some) mathematicians. It does this beautifully. It’s a compelling watch, and director Olivier Peyon chooses his subjects carefully. The interviews with disillusioned schoolchildren at the beginning comically set the scene. They are followed by footage and conversation with clearly incredibly talented teachers of maths, who convey to the audience, as they do to their students, the wonder of the subject. And the time we spend with the articulate, if slightly eccentric, Cédric Villani, French winner of the prestigious Fields Medal in 2010, moves us into the fascinating world of high-level mathematics research. The film loses its pace when it moves away from this world in order to address the role of mathematics in the global financial crisis. Whilst this is clearly an important contemporary moment in the story the film is telling, the film spends too long on it –- cut by about fifteen minutes it would have been a good end to an otherwise perfectly balanced piece.
Watch this film yourself. And above all, show it to your children.
There are two parts of the film’s story that stand out most. The first is the emphasis it places on the importance of maths teaching: the challenge of maths, says one of the interviewees, is being able to convey and share it. We see, in practice, innovative and creative ways of engaging students. But from a historical perspective the history of Nicolas Bourbaki is most fascinating. Bourbaki is the collective pseudonym under which a group of mainly French 20th-century mathematicians wrote. Their work did not just change mathematics at the highest level but prompted a revolution in school maths teaching that was to have devastating or beneficial effects in France, depending on one’s point of view.
The other part of the film that will strike a chord, in particular with members of the audience who are academics, is the interview with the Director of the Mathematical Research Institute of Oberwolfach. Academics now work in an environment dominated by micro-management, in which researchers are held to minute account by funders, and are under constant pressure to prove the impact of their work. Whilst everyone recognises the extent to which that system is at odds with the conditions necessary for any form of creative intellectual activity, it is rare that someone voices that criticism so eloquently. The Director does so, and it is a breath of fresh air to hear the simple truth stated that to get the most creative minds to stay in research, one must leave them alone.
Watch this film yourself. And above all, show it to your children. Maths might never free itself from an association with dorkiness. But maybe, this film suggests, in the spirit of the otherwise terrible teen movie SYDNEY WHITE, dorkiness might actually be the new cool.