Math from Three to Seven

Math from Three to Seven:

A question of culture

When I was a grad student at UC Berkeley (in the late 1980s), it was under- stood, among my American classmates, that the Eastern Europeans were simply better. They weren’t genetically superior; indeed, many of my Amer- ican classmates, myself included, were themselves descended from Eastern European immigrants. And we knew that we weren’t stupid. Many of us had excelled at mathematical olympiads, even at the international level. But at Berkeley, the Eastern Europeans — students and faculty alike — were known for their intensity.

American-dominated seminars might last for one polite hour; in contrast, a Russian or Rumanian seminar would go on for an entire argumentative evening. Some of us joked that the Russians really came from the planet Krypton, attaining super powers when they came to live among us.

All joking aside, we fledgling mathematicians understood that the single most important thing was not raw intelligence or knowledge (Americans tend to lag behind in the latter compared to all international students). What mattered was passion. The way to become successful in mathematics, like almost every endeavor, is to care about it, to love it, to obsess over it. And in this, Eastern Europeans had a clear superiority, a cultural advantage. They had been trained, from an early age, to love mathematics more intensely.

For many years, dating from at least the Sputnik era, America has suf- fered from an educational inferiority complex. We try to catch up, hunting for the secret ingredients that other nations use. Should we adopt the Sin- gapore curriculum? Put our kids in after-school Kumon programs? Teach them meditation? Yoga?

There’s nothing wrong with any of this; examining the practices of oth- ers’ is bound to be enriching. But it’s not the ingredients that really matter.

There is no single magical special sauce. What you need is a culture of in- tellectual inquiry, and one that fits.

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