(Originally published inThe Ten Page News #24 (December 1998).

“Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,”the Mock Turtle relplied; “and then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.”
—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

My wife and I, prompted by a display at the public library, have recently finished viewing the BBC video series Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I wasn’t very familiar with 16th Century England, so, naturally, I got out a few reference books to help me keep track of what was going on. Readers more familiar with the period will kindly bear with me: a brief summary follows.Recall that the Protestant Reformation began in 1517 (the year of Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses). This was the end of centuries of Papal supremacy in Western Europe (or, as it was then known, Western “Christendom”). King Henry of England, obsessed with his lack of a legitimate male heir, divorced Catherine of Aragon in defiance of the Pope and married his mistress Anne Boleyn in 1533. For good measure, he got Parliament to declare him supreme head of the Church of England. Catholics denying him this authority were executed for treason. These included the prominent scholars (later saints) John Fisher and Thomas More. Henry went right on killing his enemies (wives, bishops, and so on) throughout the remaining fifteen years of his reign, meanwhile suppressing monasteries (and nationalizing their treasuries).

Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by his son Edward; Edward died in 1553 and was succeeded by his half-sister Mary, a devout Roman Catholic. Mary reigned for five years and executed hundreds of Protestants in the religious persecutions that earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary” (her victims include Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the scholar largely responsible for the English Book of Common Prayer). Mary died and was succeeded in 1558 by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth, whose reign was long and glorious. Elizabeth put down the odd rebellion now and then, and executed her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots, but was generally (and justly) renowned for her moderation in the sphere of religion.

Over four hundred years have passed since then; the violence between Protestant and Catholic factions of the Christian Church continues (though not on so spectacular a scale). This is a great mystery; anyway, I sure don’t understand it. This much is clear: capable leaders on both sides were sacrificed along with large numbers of their followers. Officially, the issues involved concerned Christian doctrine—things like “what does the Last Supper mean?”. The real question in my interpretation usually comes down to“who has authority over whom?”.

Now let us turn our attention to “Calculus Reform”. Here again, though the surface issues concern doctrine (How useful are graphing calculators? How much writing should students do?), the underlying “real question” in my reading comes down to “who has authority?”. To my knowlege, no one has yet been beheaded or burned at the stake to settle these questions. Careers have been made and ruined in fairly large numbers, however, so our interest is not entirely, so to speak, academic. [Readers alert to contemporary academic jargon will very likely find these remarks reminicent of the deconstructivist school of “literary criticism”—one major theme of that school being the interpretation of “texts” (i.e., everything) in the light of power relations. These critics apparently take their cue from Karl Marx’s dictum: “All history is the story of class struggle”, and neglect his remark: “The philosophers have tried to understand the world. The point is to change it.”.]

My own particular ejection from the profession of college mathematics, for example, was precipitated by my public reactions to a consultant hired by the administration of my ex-college. Now, if the President of the College wants to pay some guy a hundred bucks an hour to make it rain, that’s her business. As Scott Adams says: “Consultants have credibility because they are not dumb enough to be regular employees at your company.” [The Dilbert Principle, 1996, HarperCollins New York] But the consultant knew nothing at all about my ex-job and I told him so.

Here is a story from Calculus: The Dynamics of Change (1996, the Mathematical Association of America; pages 47 and 49):

. . . an existing calculus reform project was determined to be a suitable program for adaptation at the University of Mississippi. The University invited one of its developers to visit the campus for two days to explore more extensively the feasibility of the University’s being a test site for the project. During that time, the developer had separate meetings with the Mathematics faculty, the chairs of the other science and engineeering departments, the Deputy Director of the Computing Center and members of his staff, the Associate Vice Chancellor of reasearch and a member of the Office of Development, the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and the Director of the University’s Writing Program. In addition, he made a presentation to the university community on his project.

After his visit, the Department’s faculty agreed that the goals and the materials provided in this project are excellent and match well with the goals and needs of the Department.

. . . As the Department continued teaching sections of the reformed course, it became apparent that students, and to a degree faculty, were having difficulty with the expectation that the text should actually be read. This led the Department to adopt a different reform text while continuing with laboratory assignments and group projects. The Department has developed its own laboratory manual and uses group projects and microcomputer laboratory assignments, but continues to struggle with the selection of a text.

My ex-college suffers from many of the same problems brought out in this passage: a percieved need for mock participation by a bloated bureaucracy in complete and willful ignorance of the actual needs of the student body, for example.

I seem to be getting carried away; sorry; I do tend to rant. Let me return to my theme.

To the extent that great historical events can be explained, there is a general agreement that one of the “reasons” the Protestant Reformation occurred when it did was the emergence of a powerful new information technology: movable type and cheap printed books. Our current reform is likewise associated to some extent with a new technology: cheap computers. Incorporating the new technology into existing institutions calls for great and rapid change; certainly an opportunity for the ambitious and possibly also for the devout. Not without risks, of course.

If I’m just bitter over a personal failure and complaining of sour grapes, well and good. I rather hope so. I will miss teaching—the only job I ever loved. I am indeed somewhat bitter. But I would act the same again; I will not study, nor will I teach, the Law of Authority: “Because I say so, that’s why.” I suspect that my case is not so exceptional and fear for my ex-profession.

When the smoke of the English Reformation cleared (briefly … but that’s another story), there was still enough talent left in the Church to produce the great religious treasure of the English Language: the “King James” Bible (James, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, succeeded Elizabeth in 1603).

Speaking of literary treasures; speaking of reform and my ex-career; speaking of “another story”: King Lear had three daughters . . .

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