Sunday, January 15, 2012


I’ve seen countless “elegant proofs” in my classroom, which makes me think serious mathematicians might enjoy visiting with me and my students. As I understand it, in mathematics an “elegant proof” occurs when the proof of the correctness of a formula is so smooth and unassailable that it’s said to be literally stunning, a kind of beauty I’ve seen in my classroom on almost a daily basis. We don’t use math formulas in my classes, but we do try to solve the “problems” presented in poems and stories, and sometimes the solutions are extraordinarily striking. Just the other day, a student spoke about the sentences at the end of a chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, and her thoughts seemed absolutely exquisite, and somehow totally true. She was just a teenager trying to unscramble a book that has stymied scholars for decades, but somehow her words seemed as flawless as a circle, as gorgeous and right as any rainbow. For that moment, what she said about those sentences from Dickens was as picture-perfect an analysis as I had ever heard. Of course, I know that on other days other students of Dickens will share different thoughts about those same sentences, and their thoughts may shine with a similar classiness – but that’s the beauty of elegant proofs, at least when it comes to literature. The light of sophisticated and deep reading is always shining, wherever there are readers ready to see it. 

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