I forget which post Gordon said it in, but at one point he noted that nearly all books prior to the invention of printing were books of magic. Sure, on the surface they might be called medical textbooks or scientific textbooks or books of geography or mythology or history. But at some level, all these books were books of magic — they were intended to change consciousness at some level.
Rufus Opus said something similar about making lamens. A lamen is usually a disk or a square that you wear on your chest during the conjuration of a spirit. The act of writing one, of punching a hole in the parchment, and putting it on a string or a chain or a lanyard, is a creative act. If the emblem you write on the lamen is the signature or symbol of a spirit, your hand is going through a kinesthetic meditation on the nature of the relationship between the conjurer and the spirit.
Something similar is happening as I create this book. It’s a Moleskine Japanese Album, the larger size, so the pages fold out into this lengthy ‘wall’ or ‘screen’ of emblems — about 5 1/4″ x 8 1/4″ inches per panel, but about 115 1/2″ long — call it about 9′ 7 1/2″.
I think about this project from time to time — more lately, since I’ve been working on it the last few days — and every time I do, I’m somewhat more dismayed at the current state of geometry teaching in the United States. By all the accounts I’ve found, and by the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected on my own, we’ve stopped teaching students to use rulers and compasses in the study of geometry. It’s too hard to remember procedures, or students don’t know how to use those flimsy plastic compasses well and the good ones are too expensive, or Euclid isn’t widely available, or … or… or…
The excuses multiply like dandelions after a rainstorm.
I don’t know that this book “will become an heirloom of my house forever,” as one of the somewhat-more-fictional sagas would have it. But I do know that I learned more geometry from the construction of the book than I ever learned in a class. And I wonder if there’s not a better way to teach geometry embedded in that discovery?
- Each student gets a good compass, a good ruler, colored pens or pencils, and a blank notebook.
- Each student learns the construction for a harmonious page layout
- Each student learns a set of procedures for:
- Perpendicular bisectors
- duplication of angles
- construction of parallel lines
- construction of similar triangles
- construction of polygons from given sides
- construction of polygons within circles
- transference of a given length or distance to another angle
- construction of nets for 3-dimensional solids
- construction of the root-2, root-3, root-4, and root-5 (phi/Φ) proportions
- division of lines into thirds, fourths, fifths, eighths, ninths, and sixteenths
- construction of grid and tile patterns
- construction of simple polygonal combinations to find the sides of super-polygons.
This benefits future craftspeople, because they’re receiving an education in proportions and common mathematical relationships, and it’s not all algebraic notation. It brings back the beauty of geometry to the mathematics classroom. It gives all of society a common language for seeing mathematics in the natural world. It trains future architects and engineers in precision diagramming, and gives future laypeople practice in reading such diagrams.
And it creates hundreds of unique copies of books of practical geometry that are themselves handbooks to a forgotten magic — a magic of beauty, of proportion, of color, of relationship, of graphic design. Students would get to learn ALL of that in the process of producing their own books over the course of a semester or a year. The quality of their book would gradually improve, as their understanding of the geometry improved, and as their love and care of the book improved. Think of all the other studies that could be folded into the creation of the book, too: handwriting, color theory, graphic design, book design, clear writing about mathematics, methodology. The book is a grade — and students who kept their book up to date would find it useful while taking tests to remember what they had created in their own handwriting. The book itself would be a palace of memory for all the geometry they had learned, just as mine is.
All of the actual constructions are covered in Andrew Sutton’s book Ruler and Compass. But actually implementing it is on the individual teacher. And it’s likely the case that the teacher will need some substantial support from an administration that sees and cares about quality instruction.
But it can be done.