One of the byproducts of the Soviet Union ’s successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 was an effort to improve American education, particularly in mathematics and the sciences, in order to keep up with the country then perceived as our enemy. As part of that educational effort, a series of 12 short films illustrating different aspects of geometry was produced at the University of Minnesota in the years 1965–1971. The director of the project was Seymour Schuster, and an all-star cast of geometers took part, including H. S. M. Coxeter, Chandler Davis, Joseph Konhauser, William Moser, and Daniel Pedoe.
These films are now available on the two-DVD set The College Geometry Project, issued by the Mathematical Association of America. Also included on the disks is an interview with Schuster explaining the project, which is illustrated with “backstage photographs” of the films being made. The DVD set is accompanied by a booklet explaining the concepts covered in each film, a bibliography, and sometimes solved and/or unsolved problems based on the material presented.
The topics covered vary in difficulty: some of the material (vector addition, for instance) could be understood by a motivated junior high school student, while most of it seems more appropriate to the university level. Which brings me to an interesting point: these films were originally intended for high school students, or at least that’s the impression conveyed in Schuster’s interview, but are now being marketed for college students. Has the teaching of geometry in America really regressed that much in the past 30 years? A high school teacher with a long memory could answer that question better than me, but in either case these films serve as a time capsule of what was expected, and what was considered important, in high school geometry classes in the late 1960s.
Will students respond to these films today? I’d like to think so, but I have my doubts. Production values may have been high for their times, but they are much lower than is customary today, and at times the editing is sloppy. For instance several times someone seems to have left a microphone on before the film proper began or after it ended, and the extraneous material was not edited out of the final product, creating a less than impressive effect. The voice-overs are uniformly dull, with the liveliest moment provided by the censor’s beep covering Schuster’s description of Pascal as “that little b*stard” for coming up with an important proof at age 16. A few of the films have a visual beauty which could attract students to their subject matter, but many are simply illustrated lectures of geometric concepts which require that the student supply his own motivation to learn the material.
Attempts to enliven the presentation with everyday illustrations of the concepts seriously date the presentations, as do the soundtracks provided for some of the films (the sitar must have been very popular in the late 1960s!). All the mathematicians who appear on camera are white men, and all but one narrator is male, choices which further date these films. Granted the men who appear were distinguished geometers, but failing to include a more diverse group creates an impression that math is a subject suited to only a subset of the population. On the other hand, students who are willing to look past the surface characteristics of these films, and who are motivated to grapple with the material presented, will find them to be enlightening. They may even get into the retro aspects of the films, in the same way that some people are attracted to early video games such as Pong.
Seymour Schuster is the Laird Professor of Mathematics and the Liberal Arts, Emeritus, at Carleton College. His publications include Elementary Vector Geometry (1962; re-issued by Dover, 2008) and Prelude to Analysis (with Paul C. Rosenbloom; 1966).
Sarah Boslaugh (email@example.com) is a Performance Review Analyst for BJC HealthCare and an Adjunct Instructor in the Washington University School of Medicine, both in St. Louis, MO. Her books include An Intermediate Guide to SPSS Programming: Using Syntax for Data Management (Sage, 2004), Secondary Data Sources for Public Health: A Practical Guide (Cambridge, 2007), and Statistics in a Nutshell (O'Reilly, forthcoming), and she was Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Epidemiology (Sage, 2008).