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Concepts of Modern Mathematics

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Concepts of Modern Mathematics began as an extramural course nowadays we would say 'continuing education—taught at Warwick University in 1971. Several dozen citizens of Coventry, ranging from school students to a retired automotive engineer, gathered for two hours every week to grapple with what was then called 'Modern Mathematics* in Britain and 'New Math* in the United States. What was new about this particular style of mathematics was not its content—most of it was at least a century old—but the fact that it was being taught in schools. The abstract, general style of mathe matical exposition favoured at research level by Nicolas Bourbaki— a pseudonymous group of mostly French mathematicians—was being transferred into the classroom.

This remarkable educational experiment remains controversial. Many see it as an unmitigated disaster. My own view is that its proponents confused logical issues about the nature of mathematics with psychological issues about how it should best be taught. The movement had some major advantages—for example it made a serious attempt to bring school mathematics out of the dark ages— and some serious flaws, such as the inclusion of abstract concepts that had no contact with anything that might interest the average school student. There was little communication between the educationalists who favoured introducing the new syllabus and the mathematicians who knew what the material in it was actually good for, and this led to some strange decisions.
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