Remembering Leon Henkin When Logic is Unclear

A Letter from the Executive Director

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By Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Read Time 4 minutes
July 1, 2023

My first cousin once removed, Leon Henkin, was an accomplished logician and mathematician. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was born in Brooklyn, attended New York Public Schools, and was part of a close-knit family whose social activism led to them having to leave Russia in the first place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Leon the past few weeks, not because he worked on the Manhattan Project, (a primary focus of the new, popular, Oppenheimer film), but because of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban affirmative action in college admissions with an exception for military academies.

Amongst his academic peers, Leon is known for truly brilliant contributions to the field logic and the creation of a proof that serves to this day as a key tool in model theory. Amongst those of us who work to increase access and equity in education, Leon is famous for other reasons. Early in his career, first at Princeton and then at the University of California Berkeley, he noticed women, people of color, and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were not being encouraged to pursue math. 

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Executive Director Gabrielle Lyon. (Photo by Mary Rafferty)

In 1964 – at a time when the UC Berkeley campus was almost entirely comprised of white students – he started the Bay Area Mathematics program to recruit students of color from the surrounding public high schools. Over the course of his career, he advocated for and built programs locally and nationally to ensure traditionally underrepresented and disenfranchised students were supported to explore and pursue math into the highest echelons of the academy. Programs he founded at Berkeley inspired national models, including Upward Bound. Leon, along with his wife Ginette, inspired me to found Project Exploration. He did more to change the face of mathematics, particularly for women, than just about anyone else in the last century. Leon was a terrific teacher, and he inspired others to teach. He was a clear speaker and inspired others to work with clarity. He asked great questions. He was a philosopher. A reader. A dancer. And, of course, as a logician, a stellar chess player.

In 1996 the passage of Proposition 209 prohibited the University of California from using race, ethnicity, or sex as admissions criteria. Leon continued to work to bring about the changes he was committed to seeing, despite his profound dismay. Well after he’d retired from the august math classrooms of UC Berkely in 1991, he continued to teach math as a volunteer in Oakland public schools.

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Leon A. Henkin (1921-2006). (Photo by George Bergman)

I see my own work as an extension of Leon Henkin’s legacy. It’s a legacy that values investing in diversity as part of its inherent logic. It’s an optimistic approach to making the world more fair, just, and inclusive. It’s a logic that assumes designing the future is rooted in how we shape our present.

It’s also a logic inherent in Illinois Humanities’ mission. We leverage the humanities to create opportunities for communities of color, individuals living on low incomes, counties and towns in rural areas, small arts and cultural organizations, and communities highly impacted by mass incarceration to strengthen our social connections and civic fabric. For example, over the next few months we’ll host an Envisioning Justice Activation Series, with events in six Illinois communities. At the heart of these events are partner-centered programs that enable participants to collectively imagine alternatives to mass incarceration. We’ll hold an orientation for our newest Odyssey Project students in just a few days. Odyssey is a free, college-credit humanities program for income eligible adults with limited access to higher education. And today, as I write from Hillsboro, Illinois, I’m surrounded by people from small towns and rural communities across the state who are gearing up to host Spark!, an exhibition about rural innovation. Though these approaches take different forms, they share a commitment to leveragingthe humanities to activate creativity, community, and connection with people – and in places – often barred from participation.

Whether you attend an Envisioning Justice activation day, visit the Spark! exhibit in Hillsboro, IL, or talk with someone at the movie theater about the film you’ve just seen, please stay in touch with Illinois Humanities. Your involvement is what makes the humanities happen.

Personally, I’m looking forward to being at Illinois Humanities programs AND to seeing how the Manhattan Project is portrayed in the Oppenheimer film. And I’ll find a way to see the Barbie movie too. I’m pretty sure Leon would have been able to help Teen Talk Barbie appreciate math.

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