Professor Emeritus Alvin White Dies

Jun 23, 2009 - Claremont, Calif. - Professor of Mathematics Emeritus Alvin White, a long-time member of the Department of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College (HMC), died June 2, 2009.

"Alvin served the college from 1962 until his retirement in 1996 with grace, kindness and good humor," said Vice President and Dean of Faculty Robert Cave in an announcement to the college community. "He loved mathematics and was a strong advocate within and beyond HMC for seeing mathematics as a humanistic discipline. He was also a friendly and supportive senior colleague to young faculty."

Professor of Mathematics Emeritus Robert Borrelli said of his colleague, "Al was the sweetest, kindest person who was very interested in helping students. He will be missed."

Before coming to HMC, White was a member of the Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. He earned his A.B. in liberal arts at Columbia University, his M.A. in mathematics at UCLA and his Ph.D. in mathematics at Stanford University.

White served for many years as project director for the Interdisciplinary Holistic Teaching/Learning Program at The Claremont Colleges, which advocated a synthesis of science and humanities and an awareness of the interdependence of intuitive and analytical thought processes. In 1971, he was called upon to take part in the State of California's Blue Ribbon Commission on Writing Standards.

In addition to his teaching and research at HMC, White was the founding editor of Humanistic Mathematics Network Journal, which was part of a resurgence in the recognition of mathematics as a humanistic discipline. The journal was funded largely through grants from the Exxon Education Foundation.

White described the journal thus:

The journal includes book reviews, classroom teaching experiences, polemics, poetry, puzzles, philosophical issues, and other free interpretations of humanistic math, including "half-baked ideas."

In his paper "Humanistic Mathematics - Rediscovering Joy in Learning," Roger Haglund of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Concordia College, wrote of White:

Dr. White began a campaign for "humanistic mathematics" and he has seen his personal vision grow into an international movement which is having a significant impact on mathematics education.

Humanistic dimensions of mathematics...included the following:

  1. An appreciation of the role of intuition, not only in understanding but in creating concepts that appear in their finished versions to be "merely technical."
  2. An appreciation of the human dimensions that motivate discovery: competition, cooperation, the urge for holistic pictures.
  3. An understanding of the value judgments implied in the growth of any discipline. Logic alone never completely accounts for what is investigated, how it is investigated, and why it is investigated.
  4. There is a need for new teaching/learning formats that will help wean our students from the view of knowledge as certain, to be "received."

In his paper, "Journals: Assessment Without Anxiety," White wrote:

Mathematics is sometimes perceived as stark and unbending. This may be caused by presentations which are strictly definition-theorem-proof, or lack a sense of historical evolution and excitement.

How do students acquire knowledge of mathematics? Memorization and solving problems are two routes that may be followed. Constructing personal meaning by reflection and conversation is another route. These routes are not mutually exclusive.