Morse’s Code: Rescuing Maine’s high schools

Posted Oct. 31, 2012, at 12:03 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 01, 2012, at 9:19 a.m.
Professor Dr. Henry Andrew Pogorzelski, president of the Research Institute for Mathematics, is shown here in 1997.
Photo courtesy of Eric Weisz
Professor Dr. Henry Andrew Pogorzelski, president of the Research Institute for Mathematics, is shown here in 1997.

At the age of 90, I may be able to impart some helpful insights on the existing disadvantages confronting students and teachers in Maine’s high schools. My comments here are based on my experience as a full professor of mathematics for more than three decades at the University of Maine, coming here from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where both physicist Albert Einstein and mathematician Marston Morse of Waterville were faculty members.

Outside the state of Maine, it is rather known that Maine high schools are in dire straits. For example, The New York Times, during a recent Maine gubernatorial election, reported that Maine high schools ranked last in a national evaluation of all high schools in the U.S. This places Maine high school students entering the university system at a terrible disadvantage.

As a professor, I am obliged to confront this problem in my classes. I find it my responsibility to exercise considerable time in motivating, supporting, helping and encouraging my students. I disagree with the university process of forcing full professors to teach high school courses and actually branding them as college courses. Aside from being unethical, this denotes a shameless misuse of university professors. In order to cope with such excessiveness in Maine’s university, I shifted my grading process to motivate students toward learning rather than mere memorization. At the end of a semester, students are graded on a term paper on any topic in the course, thereby focusing on creativity rather than the usual sterile remembrance.

Permit me to comment on why, in my opinion, Maine high schools are obliged to continually remain in their dire straits. My long experience in teaching thousands of Maine students in my classes allows me to infer that Maine’s high school teachers unfortunately lack advanced knowledge of specializations in math and the sciences. UMaine administrators should utilize their facilities in the evening for Maine’s high school teachers. For example, for years, upon leaving my 3 p.m. class it pained me to witness that UMaine essentially closes down academically for the rest of the afternoon and evening. It always reminded me of my years at Columbia University in New York City where the graduate schools would swing open at 5 p.m. with their best full professors teaching till 10 p.m. every night.

This clearly depicts a rather shameless waste of not only UMaine’s evening facilities but also their professors. Presently, as in the past, UMaine professors are generally obliged to present advanced courses to classes consisting of not more than a couple of students. This goes on while many hundreds of high school teachers in Maine are consistently denied the very knowledge in math and the sciences that they so desperately need to get Maine’s high schools out of their dire straits, aside from opening the high school teaching market for the best of the math and science graduates who are presently obliged to leave Maine. Granted that the high school teachers in New York City have their subways to get to and from their universities, Maine could still utilize school buses to transport the teachers within a 50-mile radius to and from UMaine during the evenings.

The University of Maine System’s chancellor should erase the current obstacles existing between Maine’s high schools and UMaine. For example, I see no reason why Maine high schools could not teach more students calculus in their high schools.

Finally, remember Marston Morse. He can positively help Maine students, teachers and the public by serving as a unique model for us all, that a poor kid from Maine can rise to the lofty heights of math and science as a faculty member of the Institute for Advanced Study. I pray that someday Morse Theory will be allowed to be taught to UMaine graduate students in the math and physics departments just as it is taught at Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley, and others.

Professor Dr. Henry Andrew Pogorzelski is president of the Research Institute for Mathematics, the only institution permitted to grant doctorates in mathematics by the state of Maine.


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