Math Shmath (Revised*)

Long ago, I used to love math. I loved finding out the multitude of ways numbers could be put together, and what they represented. I loved how equations could solve real world problems, and that if you worked hard, you could create a new way of looking at things through numbers, because mathematics was and still is a language. I still have an obsession with the number 9. (It’s a perfect square of the magical “3.” How multiples if 9, add up to 9.)

Slowly, as I entered high school however, I began to lose my faith in math. One day I sat in class, trying to understand the difference between both real and imaginary numbers, while attempting to solve for the co-sin, and trying desperately to stay awake while the teacher droned on. I raised my hand repeatedly, having to practically wave it to get my teacher’s attention. When she finally called upon me, it was with such hostility at being interrupted, that I barely got my question out. “What do you use imaginary numbers for?”

“You add them to real numbers to create a complex one.” Then she turned back to the board, and looked at what she had just been doing, trying to getting a sense of where she left off.

“But why?” I insisted.

She turned to me, speaking with the most bored, and hard to understand tone. (She spoke with a heavy accent, making her words, that much more indistinguishable.)  “An imaginary number bi can be added to a real number a to form a complex number of the form a + bi, where a and b are called respectively, the “real part” and the “imaginary part” of the complex number. Imaginary numbers can therefore be thought of as complex numbers where the real part is zero, and the other way around.” (Or something to this effect. Her version of teaching math was basically Wikipedia, which is where I pulled this quote from.)

I was flummoxed. I was pretty sure that wasn’t what I had asked, but now both she and all of the other students stared at me as if I was stupid (the students who still cared that is).  So I agreed, “Yes. I understand now.” The teacher went back to droning the stuff she had learned from her textbook, and I stared at the book which once held possibilities in hatred.  Math was stupid. Math class was now a place to go, when I wanted to feel stupid and confused and very very sleepy. Once it had been a world of wonder, but now, as a knowledgeable teenager, I felt even more stupid for ever believing that it was. I stared at the book, tried a few more times over the coming months to understand it’s contents, and promptly, flunked out of Integrated Math II.

Looking back, I have come to understand several things, that had I known as a teenager, a spark of love for math might still burn within my heart. First, Integrated Math and Sciences is the most unintelligent thing to be created by intelligent educating minds. Second, because I was switching to this non-functioning system of Integrated Math, Trigonometry was in fact a foreign subject.  I had never learned geometry.

Third, and most important, was that my teacher, did not in fact, actually understand Mathematics. I learned later that she had told parents on “Parent/Teacher Night,” that she in fact hated math. She only taught it, in the effort to get her green card from the Philippines. Now while I applaud her craftiness, and recognize that if there had been more Americans willing to teach math, then perhaps she would never have been in this position, I must declare that this was not a person to be shaping young minds.

It is not only my limited range of teachers whom I pity for lacking inspiration within their own lives. No one around me ever said, “Math is fun!” Even my uncle the math teacher, had his own problems, which made teaching a something for him to dread. I come from a family of engineers, so while I sense that there might be something fun in it, it seems to me like a novel which is simply too hard to read.

Now, as a college graduate, I am haunted by the things I did not get a chance to learn in school. I will most likely still read The Odessy, and re-aquatint myself with the history of Native Americans. I will write that email to a professor whose class I regrettably managed to avoid, begging him for a copy of his syllabus. I will continue in my endless quest to finally, successfully tackle the french language, but I don’t kid myself, into thinking that if I’ll ever find myself sitting down in front of a math book again, unless it’s in an effort to help one of my future children with their homework.

So I am going to be a huge hypocrite, and tell you to go back and discover your love of math, but I don’t have the time, (with the promise that if I ever get done with french, I’ll look into it.)

I leave you with a link to the wonderful essay which sparked this post, about Mathematics in the American school system, how they are taught, and how they are viewed.  I ask you: What kind of Mathematics did you learn? What kind will your children?

I can’t wait to see what I think of the subject, when I’m 80.


The Most Misunderstood Subject

© Dr. Robert H. Lewis
Professor of Mathematics, Fordham University

For more than two thousand years, mathematics has been a part of the human search for understanding. Mathematical discoveries have come both from the attempt to describe the natural world and from the desire to arrive at a form of inescapable truth from careful reasoning. These remain fruitful and important motivations for mathematical thinking, but in the last century mathematics has been successfully applied to many other aspects of the human world: voting trends in politics, the dating of ancient artifacts, the analysis of automobile traffic patterns, and long-term strategies for the sustainable harvest of deciduous forests, to mention a few. Today, mathematics as a mode of thought and expression is more valuable than ever before. Learning to think in mathematical terms is an essential part of becoming a liberally educated person.
— Kenyon College Math Department Web Page

“An essential part of becoming a liberally educated person?” Sadly, many people in America, indeed, I would have to say very many people in America, would find that a difficult and puzzling concept. The majority of educated Americans do not think of Mathematics when they think of a liberal education. Mathematics as essential for science, yes, for business and accounting, sure, but for a liberal education? “

*That will teach me to post before 10 am.


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