A few of my colleagues were arguing today about Ernest Davis’s review of the book in SIAM News. To the constant and legitimate concern that spilling the beans about the basically pleasurable nature of our activity might lead to funding cuts, one of them added what you might call the real world argument: students, especially undergraduates, really want to get jobs after they graduate; economics is the most popular major and we need to keep in mind our responsibility to prepare our students for the real world. I’m reconstructing the last part from fragments; when I arrived the argument was nearly over and I was too busy picking up my daily ration of fresh fruit to pay attention to details. Moreover, I was tongue-tied as usual (even when my mouth was not full of fruit) and couldn’t really participate in the discussion, so my colleague will have to forgive me if I misrepresent his position.
In this view, mathematicians, and university professors more generally, are a category of service workers, like the fast food workers in the terrific film that I just saw tonight, but with much much better working conditions. You won’t find me complaining about my working conditions on this blog! But attention to conditions in the real world compels us to recognize, as Davis pointed out last month, that
In practical terms, arguing that mathematics without clear direct practical applications (essentially all of pure math and much of so-called applied math) should be funded on the basis that it is a creative pleasure rather than a golden goose of practical applications is pretty much tantamount to saying that it should be funded at the level of the National Endowment for the Humanities, rather than at the level of the National Science Foundation. Whether Harris would be content with this outcome is not clear to me.
Of course Davis is right, as is the colleague who was concerned about our obligations as a service industry, but only if one agrees with Margaret Thatcher that There Is No Alternative to the real world as it is presently constituted. When I’m ready to tangle with the real world I will write a very different kind of book. In this one I tried to reproduce the ethos of the world of real mathematicians. As I see it, this ethos is not necessarily comfortable with the trade-off whereby we provide a marketable service or proclaim our fidelity to the entrepreneurial mindset in exchange for the freedom to participate in the relaxed field of pure research. It seems to me that this situation is at the root of a very real sense of alienation that manifests itself as a fear of loss of funding — or at least a reduction to the level of the National Endowment for the Humanities — if our true motivations are ever disclosed.
I would say that the greatest service we can provide our students is to demonstrate by example that there are still a few islands within the larger society that are not alienated in the sense of being thoroughly subordinated to the entrepreneurial mindset. That’s what this bit from the first dialogue is about:
The risk, such as it is, is that some of our students will conclude from this lesson that the real world is not an insuperable obstacle.