Why foster a culture of Mathematics?

During a recent online interaction with college teachers at an event organised at Kashmir University, Srinagar, I had chosen to speak on a theme that revolved around the issue that bears the title of this essay. In the lines that follow, an attempt has been made to point out why mathematics is rooted in human culture and why it ought to be seen as an important component of curriculum whereby all educational institutions would be required to keep pace with the changes that are taking place in the domain of mathematics. That is besides the usefulness of mathematics at every level of the curriculum in terms of how it helps in developing such important faculties as critical thinking, logical analysis, clarity of thought, problem solving and as a tool to sharpen the intellect.

At the outset, it may be noted that mathematics is a body of thinking, developed over a period of time extending over centuries by men of outstanding caliber and talent. In its present role, mathematics is a means of discovering and participating in new and important ways of thinking. One is reminded of David Hilbert who had famously remarked on the eve of the international congress of mathematicians held in Paris at the turn of the 20th century: “We must know. We shall know”. These words tell their own storyregarding the role of knowledge in the evolution of human civilisation. An important component of an evolved, civilised human behaviour is the cardinal principle that if you can know, then it is criminal not to know! Acquisition and creation of knowledge is as much part of the human endeavour as is the search for beauty. After all, if life was not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and if life was not worth knowing, it would not be worth living.

Mathematics has the unique distinction of coming across both as a science as well as an art. Whereas it has brought immense value to the human life as an important tool being used in science and engineering, it doubles up also as an art where the search for beauty is an essential component of its raison d’etre. However, the fact remains that creativity, say in poetry as also in literature, painting or music is of a different kind and does not have to be compared with the type of creativity that is brought to bear upon a piece of work in mathematics. The point is that what you create at the conceptual level resides entirely in the human mind which, in the case of mathematics, is inextricably followed by discovery- the discovery of laws underlying patterns encountered both within the world of mathematics and without. Apart from this, mathematics also stands apart in terms of the vast vistas of opportunities that are available to those who choose to walk away with a basic degree in mathematics. Besides of course a career in academic research, these include opportunities in information technology, insurance, finance, investment banking, climatology and many other fields where a strong grounding in mathematics is required as an essential qualification.

Coming to the current status of mathematics and the level of progress in pedagogy and research in Jammu and Kashmir, there is unfortunately not much to gloat over. This is so because no serious efforts have been initiated in the past towards the development of this important discipline in J&K in general and in the Valley of Kashmir in particular. Students aspiring for admission in different institutions of science and technology spread all over the country, or those desirous to participate in mathematical Olympiads held at national or international level with a view to pursue a career in mathematics are hemmed in in an effort to pursue their passion. As a result, those with an aptitude for mathematics are either lost to other disciplines where either they can’t perform to their potential or are otherwise forced to leave their studies halfway!

In order to reverse this trend, a variety of initiatives have been contemplated over a period of time which include the desire to create a facility that would act as a hub of serious mathematical activity among those who would wish to devote themselves exclusively to a serious pursuit of mathematics, both in research and pedagogy. Thankfully, after a sustained effort that staggered over a period of several years, the idea came to fruition through the creation of an institution in the valley. One of the many aims for the establishment of the institution for mathematics in Kashmir was the desire to sensitize the potential segments of the academic community in the state to the exciting possibilities for pursuing a career in mathematics on the one hand and for the need to improving standards in math. pedagogy (and research) in the schools, colleges and universities of the J&K state, on the other. Equally important for this initiative has been the understanding that in view of the rapid advancement in research in all domains of knowledge including especially in science  and technology, the study of mathematics has attained paramount significance.

To this end, the institute is planned to be a rendezvous for hosting seminars, workshops, conferences and visits by eminent mathematicians, both from within and outside the country, especially during summer months when the valley provides the right working conditions and an excellent atmosphere for such activities. That would also provide an opportunity for fruitful interaction of our students and research scholars with the visiting scientists and mathematicians from other centers of excellence. It is also planned to conduct outreach activities involving a sustained interaction between students, scholars and teachers of mathematics working at the institute with the mathematicians who would be visiting, both for short and extended periods of stay at the institute. That would help create an ambience for an intellectually fruitful engagement of these scholars with our students. Of late, we are also working on the logistics involving our teachers working in the schools, colleges and universities of J&K for the development of teaching skills in certain coaching centers located outside of Kashmir. Presently, the institute is in negotiations with the Teaching Development Centre (TDC) of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore where, at the moment, coaching is confined to the teachers of the state of Karnataka only.

In pursuit of the goals as enunciated above, a much needed relook is warranted by the state administration to provide the necessary support so that the institute is run in a professional manner, unlike the manner in which it was being allowed to function since its inception in 2013. In the short term, that would necessitate:

  • Restructuring of the academic/administrative machinery at the institute by effecting the appointment of a regular director who has a proven track record of administrative experience at the highest level and scholarship backed by original research and pedagogy in mathematics/physics and equally importantly, who is a person of reasonable national/international standing and enjoys the respect and recognition within the mathematical/scientific community across the country.
  • Appointment of regular teaching staff in mathematics and physics – and later in theoretical computer science as already stands approved for the purpose. The stop-gap arrangement involving college teachers being picked up and deputed to teach cannot be continued indefinitely to ensure quality teaching at the institute.
  • Arranging funds to be provided for conducting regular extension lectures by guest faculty from certain centers of excellence in mathematics/physics in the country.

It is our understanding that the idea of reviving the JK Institute of Mathematical Sciences (JKIMS) in the light of the suggestions as delineated above would help achieve the goals and the vision as set forth for the establishment of the institute. A prevarication on the part of those who are in authority or those who are involved with the institute one way or the other would accelerate its free fall to a point where it would be near impossible to bring it back to life.

Prof. M. A. Sofi is (NBHM Visiting Professor) JK Institute of Mathematical Sciences Srinagar