Of the four Fields medals—awarded every four years for outstanding mathematical work done by the age of forty—announced recently, three attracted attention for reasons that went beyond exceptional achievement. These three medals were awarded to Artur Avila, a Brazilian, Manjul Bhargava, a Canadian, and Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian. Mirzakhani became the first woman and Iranian to win the medal, Avila the first Brazilian and Bhargava the first person of Indian origin to do so. But while Avila and Mirzakhani were products of the educational systems of their respective countries of origin, Bhargava was emphatically not.
In a recent interview in the Times of India, among the several carried in the Indian media, which has rushed to claim him as India’s own, Bhargava seemed well aware of the failings of our system. “My sense is that mathematics is sometimes not taught in India as a subject in itself and/or a career in itself,” he said. “It is taught to be a tool for engineering and an eventual engineering career.” The familiar combination of bad teachers and learning by rote is compounded by a society that has an overly utilitarian attitude towards life and learning. Perhaps, the problems of this attitude are best summed up by looking at a recent editorial in the Business Standard, a paper that has covered the awards in some detail, titled “Why Maths Matters.”
The editorial argues that
... no matter how ‘abstract’ pure mathematics seems, it tends to find practical applications, sooner or later. ... A string of recent prizes and awards designed to reward pure maths research indicates that the world is coming to understand how important this is. ... These new incentives will hopefully inspire more children to consider pure research as a career. The world depends on technology—and technology depends on maths. What is more, maths that seems utterly obscure and abstract can suddenly become essential. Nurturing the gifted and giving them an atmosphere conducive to pure research could turn out to be mission-critical for civilisation.”
While this utilitarian argument may sound like a good pitch for a country to invest more money in teaching mathematics, it also seems to suggest that producing great mathematicians is a little like attracting people to investment banking. Well-meaning though the piece may be, it reduces the question of nurturing the gifted in mathematics to providing the right monetary incentives.