Hello, reader! If you intend to post a link to this blog on Twitter, be aware that for utterly mysterious reasons, Twitter thinks this blog is spam, and will prevent you from linking to it. Here's a workaround: change the .com in the address to .ca. I call it the "Maple Leaf Loophole." And thanks for sharing!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Leave Those Kids Alone

My friends and mentors Bob and Ellen Kaplan founded a very collaborative, fun version of a Math Circle in Cambridge. It gives young children the opportunity to work as real mathematicians do - on broad, unfamiliar problems in a playful atmosphere. In my work, I have dealt with hundreds of parents, only a few like this. I wish I had responded so eloquently.

Dear all,

Some parents in Chicago, having heard of us, wrote to ask how they could best get their 8-year-old onto a yet faster track and drive him over higher and higher hurdles. We thought you might be interested in our answer (with their names disguised). Alex has written a great e-mail to them, offering him a place in her Math Circle.

Dear F and S,

Your son sounds wonderful, and it is very important to do the right things for him now. Please read our e-mail carefully, and re-read it, since some of it may not be what you expected to hear.

You want J to grow up loving you, and math, and his friends; having a life full of joy and the pleasures of the mind and the world. You want him to appreciate all the beautiful things in the world the way an artist does, and be someone who will be a benefit to those around him, and who will in turn delight in the achievement of others and of our amazing species. The last thing you want is for him to be driven by doubt and rivalry, living the sad life that athletes often do, never satisfying their own expectations or those of their family.

Mathematics is an art, and like all art, it needs peace of mind, leisure, lack of pressure to let invention and imagination grow. Tests and contests are exactly the wrong setting for doing real math: they foster competition where cooperation is wanted; they take the deep pleasure of mathematics away and replace it by the shallow and short-lived pleasures of winning and then having to compete again: the surest way to neurosis, ill heath and dissatisfaction with oneself, one’s family and the world. This road to ruin you see being followed by so many in our high anxiety world.

Let J’s real delight in mathematics grow by having him enjoy, at leisure, with no time pressure or pressure to succeed, real mathematics: not this problem and that (short-winded exercises that reach down to no depth), but exploring geometry, or algebra, or calculus, slowly, with questions and mulling things over, trying different approaches (many of which won’t work - but that’s part of the fun of exploring!). This is why we wrote our book, The Art of the Infinite, which sets the reader out on paths that go deeper and deeper into the heart of things. This is why we began our Math Circles, where people talk together about serious problems in a non-competitive way, as philosophers and artists do, trying to understand, not triumph over, the world and the human mind.

All parents want the best for their children, but often rush them instead headlong into lives of endless dissatisfaction. Let J have the time to fool around, to try this and that, to get things wrong – because this is the way all great mathematicians have begun, focusing not on themselves or petty successes but on mathematics itself, which needs imagination to live with happily. And imagination grows in a life where the cares of the day are seen to be unimportant. Think of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, laughing at the moon.

With our very best wishes,

Bob & Ellen Kaplan


  1. Hooray, Hooray, Hooray and Hooray.

    This is a beautiful response. Wow!

  2. kate,
    is there away of staying in touch with maths circles.

    I looked on the site for a newsletter or a way of following them but couldn't find anything.

    Any ideas?

  3. I don't think they have a newsletter. They pretty much focus on running their program. If you are interested in a great newsletter in that spirit, though, you should write to Jim Tanton at St. Mark's and ask him to add you to his mailing list. His address (I hope this is enough of a disguise for the crawlers) is jamestanton *at* stmarksschool *dot* org. Also check out the Kaplans' book "Out of the Labyrinth".

  4. While I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting the Kaplans, many of my students have participated in their Math Circle over the years. Your post reminded me that I should find time to see one of their classes in action.

    May I ask how you know them? Are you from the Boston area?

  5. Hi Colleen - When I read their book Out of the Labyrinth I became interested in starting a Math Circle in my region. I'm not from around Boston. I attended the Summer Institute they hosted at Notre Dame last year and had the privilege to work with them throughout the week. The Summer Institute was wonderful, and they are holding another this coming summer. I highly recommend it if you are interested and able.


Hi! I will have to approve this before it shows up. Cuz yo those spammers are crafty like ice is cold.