I posted recently about the macho culture of pure mathematics, and the undue focus that school mathematics education has on problem-solving and competitive games.
I have just encountered an undated essay, “The Two Cultures of Mathematics”, by Fields Medallist Timothy Gowers, currently Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Gowers identifies two broad types of research pure mathematicians: problem-solvers and theory-builders. He cites Paul Erdos as an example of the former (as I did in my earlier post), and Michael Atiyah as an example of the latter. What I find interesting is that Gowers believes the the profession as a whole currently favours theory-builders over problem-solvers. And domains of mathematics where theory-building is currently more important (such as Geometry and Algebraic Topology) are favoured over domains of mathematics where problem-solving is currently more important (such as Combinatorics and Graph Theory).
I agree with Gowers here, and wonder, then, why the teaching of mathematics at school still predominantly favours problem-solving over theory-building activities, despite a century of Hilbertian and Bourbakian axiomatics. Is it because problem-solving was the predominant mode of British mathematics in the 19th century (under the pernicious influence of the Cambridge Mathematics Tripos, which retarded pure mathematics in the Anglophone world for a century) and school educators are slow to catch-on with later trends? Or, is it because the people designing and implementing school mathematics curricula are people out of sympathy with, and/or not competent at, theory-building? Certainly, if your over-riding mantra for school education is instrumental relevance than the teaching of abstract mathematical theories may be hard to justify (as indeed is the teaching of music or art or ancient Greek). This perhaps explains how I could learn lots of tricks for elementary arithmetic in day-time classes at primary school, but only discover the rigorous beauty of Euclid’s geometry in special after-school lessons from a sympathetic fifth-grade teacher (Frank Torpie).