Once in a while we read books that we just know are especially important, and that we know we will be thinking and talking about long after reading them. This book is one of them for me.
I am a returning adult student, and I am about to finish my training to become a math teacher. Having gone through my education program, my enthusiasm was just about completely drained, and I've been having trouble remembering why I ever wanted to become a math teacher in the first place. Why would anyone?
Paul Lockhart knows, and his book has reawakened my desire to help students discover the joy of mathematics. His argument is concise, and he makes it forcefully. His book is a joy to read, mainly because his understanding of the subject and his passion for it are clear in every page. He reinforces ideas I already had about how school sucks the life out of math (and all subjects), but he also challenges some of my opinions. I think this will happen with most people who read it.
Once he finishes making his argument about math education in about the first two-thirds of this short book, he devotes the remaining section to describing what he finds wonderful about mathematics itself. This section should make just about anyone want to become either a mathematician or a math teacher.
I want people to read the book for the specifics of his arguments, but I want to discuss one important point that he makes. Many people in math education claim that in order to make math more understandable and interesting to students, we need to show how practical it is and how it is used in everyday life. I've always felt like this idea was wrong, or at least limited in its usefulness in that regard. Well, Lockhart demolishes the idea, essentially claiming that practical uses are simply by-products of math, and that the real excitement and beauty of mathematics is in the abstract, imaginary, and creative world of mathematical ideas that have no specific connection to the everyday. By-products and applications can make math seem boring and secondary to the uses it serves. I agree with him--and much more now after having read his argument.
I honestly think just about everyone should read this book. Of course math teachers should, as should anybody involved in math education in any way. But I think people outside of math education should read it too. The specific mathematical ideas discussed in the book do not require a strong mathematical background, and I can't think of a better book that so concisely conveys the nature of the subject and the way it is viewed and misunderstood in society. I'm still not sure I agree with Lockhart's every point, but I love this book. (And I might agree with his every point after more thought and experience in the classroom.)