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The Brilliance of Walt Disney shines in 'Donald Duck and Mathmagic Land'

Sunday nights from my childhood had a duel nature to them. Often the culmination of a weekend’s fun activities and the closure of a relaxing day, Sunday night came around far too quickly. In our house, we had a weekly ritual of watching Sunday night’s Disneyland program which was followed rapidly by bed time.

As the tune ‘When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are…’ blared from the TV, it brought me mixed emotions. Mainly because this tune signalled the end of the weekend but also it was the precursor to Monday morning’s crowded classroom and the scarier music of Latin homework or Euclidian Geometry proofs. It was not until I was a young adult that I understood that the word “scholarship” meant “something about learning” rather than “fear”!
Disneyland was a wonderful show. It was invariably introduced by Walt Disney himself who set you up in anticipation of a documentary, a historical story or perhaps an hour with one of his cartoon favourites. It is said that Mickey Mouse was the making of Walt Disney but the character who captured the imagination more was Donald Duck. Apparently, Donald starred in many more cartoon shows than Mickey and if that is true I suggest it was Donald’s character that lodged comfortably in our psyche.

My youngest son’s 21st birthday party was a proud occasion, but he shocked my wife and I when he mentioned he was brought up by Macaulay Culkin. Later, upon reflection, we accepted that perhaps we had planted him in front of “Home Alone” once too often. We should have picked it when he farewelled his preschool friends on his last day with “keep the change, you filthy animal”!

I think my generation was brought up by Donald Duck along with equal portions of Charles Shultz’s characters Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Donald’s two dominant personality traits were his short temper and his positive outlook on life. Many of Donald stories start with Donald in a happy mood, without a care in the world until something comes along and spoils his day. His anger is a great cause of suffering in his life. On multiple occasions, it has caused him to get in over his head and lose competitions. There are times when he fights to keep his temper in check, and he sometimes succeeds in doing so, at least temporarily. I believe this touches a chord with many of us.

So to me, Walt Disney choosing Donald to star in a documentary about Mathematics was a masterstroke. Donald’s initial impatient response to a story about Greek Mathematics was timeless, matching my own childhood class’ response facing Euclidian proofs for that scary Scholarship exam or today’s ATC students’ response to “π” getting a front row seat in those two perplexing formulae of 2πR and π R2. To be told that these are structures of nature’s beauty only reinforced a young mind’s view that Maths teachers are the equivalent of “stranger danger”.

“Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land” was nominated for an academy award in 1959. At the same time in the USA both the Physics and Chemistry curriculum was given a comprehensive upheaval to make the country more competitive in the Space race. The famous PSSC and ChemStudy programs were introduced with more emphasis on experimental work to develop the interest and abilities of a generation. The USA certainly picked up in their space race, perhaps in response to these new approaches.

Personally, I think Donald Duck did as least as much, coupled of course with the beautiful, calm voice of the narrator Paul Frees. In the 29-minute movie Paul Frees takes the easily irascible Donald on a journey that melts the obstinate mind that hates Maths to the alternate positive, optimistic, excitable mind that lays out a possible future. Even as a youngster, I was intrigued by the closing scenes of the movie where Donald stands in front of a long corridor of doors, the nearby ones opened and the farther ones closed. Donald rushes down the corridor and tries to open one of these doors and immediately “does his biscuit” because it will not budge. Paul Frees, with his melodic tones, explains to Donald that these are the doors of the future and that they will be opened, in time, through mathematics. Considering

this was 1959, Walt Disney had magnificent foresight and I believe stirred the “baby boomer” generation into action.

In the final week of school, the Year 6 classes will have a special visitor in Mr John Perrin, former CEO of Motorola Australia. He is well into his retirement years but he is still active visiting schools encouraging more interest in electronics and coding. He works with three other older cronies in a small company called Kitshop. John is keen to see what our Year 6 classes have been learning in electricity this term and perhaps offer further ideas. Coding is the buzz word in education at the moment, and is included in the National curriculum. Here at ATC we do coding in our STEM classes with Mr Adam Moss but it will be interesting to get John Perrin’s advice on its future. I think Walt Disney would be optimistic and futuristic about this topic. Whether he would enlist Donald’s support to make “Donald Duck in Coding Land” is another thing.

The famous quote below is from the final scene:

Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe’. – Galileo

Greg Quinn, Assistant Dean of Learning
quinng@atc.qld.edu.au