My Dearest Math,

Whenever motivation is discussed in a class about you, my dearest math, the answer is almost always the same: show them how the topic is applicable, and they will want to study it. The only problem with that is that not all of your wonder and majesty is applicable. More prevalent, not everything the state expects them to know about you is applicable. In fact, some of it is downright silly.

If you ask most adults why you are important and worthy of study, they will say that it is because you are useful for solving problems. If you ask those same adults how much of the math they learned in high school they use on a regular basis, they will tell you that they use little to none.

There is this disconnect. Society is convinced that you are simultaneously useful and useless.

Some have tried to rectify this discrepancy by talking about how each part of you is useful to some profession later on, and since high schoolers don’t actually know what they are going to end up doing, we should teach them all everything there is to know about you.

This almost makes sense. This almost rectifies the issue. However, it doesn’t change the here and now and reeks of someone who has never dealt with a high schooler. Since they doesn’t know what they are going to do, they don’t know whether or not they need to learn this, and so a high schooler won’t waste their time learning it. The truth is, any aspect of you, my love, that someone needs to know for their job, they will be taught in the training for that job. The truth is, any aspect of you that someone wants to know for any reason can be found online. The truth is, whether or not they learn any individual part of you in high school is irrelevant. They can either learn it in college, online, or in the training for their job.

So what, then, is the point of teaching students about you in high school? If not the individual parts of you, what should we be teaching them?

However much it pains me to say it, I believe the answer to that question lies in viewing you, temporarily, as less than you are. Let’s try viewing you in the framework of a mere mortal:

If you know that a particular person is going to be important to your child later on in life, say their grandparents, you don’t start by telling them how grandma’s kidneys work. You don’t start by telling them about this one time when grandpappy worked as a Client Data and Management Information Consultant. You don’t start by telling them about granny’s middle school GPA.

You let the child spend time around them.

To be perfectly honest, from a child’s perspective, no one besides their parents seems to be of particular immediate recognizable import. And yet, we know that later in life, people like grandparents can become extremely important later in life.

So do we tell them that they should pay attention to granny because one day they might need encouragement from her about doing badly in a middle school history class? Do we tell them that they should pay attention to grandpappy because one day they might need help analyzing data and making decisions about management? Do we tell them that they should pay attention to grandma’s kidneys because one day she might need a new one?

No.

We tell them about how grandma and grandpappy and granny love them and are fun people to be around and that they can feel safe around them. If they are comfortable approaching their grandparents, they can get all the rest when they actually need it.

What if we, as a society, took a similar approach to teaching our children about you, my dearest math? What if, instead of trying to convince kids to pay attention to minute details that may or may not become important, we teach them how to be comfortable around you? What if, instead of teaching this specific item in case they need it in life, we teach them how to talk to you and how to understand what you are saying to them?

What if we quit treating you like a toolbox full of an inordinate number of potentially useful tools and started treating you like a grandparent full of an infinite amount of potentially useful wisdom?

Yours Forever,
Dexterus

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The Essence of Mathematics, in One Beatles Song

My Dearest Math,

This man seems to have spent at least as much time getting to know you as I have. I will endeavor to hide my jealousy.

Yours Forever,
Dexterus

Math with Bad Drawings

Okay, here’s a life regret: No one has ever stopped me on the street, grabbed me by the collar, and demanded that I explain to them the essence of mathematics.

I’ve envisioned it many times, though.

What math teacher hasn’t?

20160425071213_00003Me: So, you want to get math?

Assailant: Obviously! Why else would one human being violently accost another, if not for the acquisition of knowledge?

Me: Easy, then! All you need to do is listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Assailant: [arches eyebrow] You can’t be serious. The Beatles album?

Me: [easing out of their grip, brushing my collar] Naturally! The whole album is trippy and spectacular, of course. But I’m talking about the final moments of the final track, a song that Rolling Stone has hailed as the Beatles’ greatest: “A Day in the Life.”

Assailant: [listening on an iPhone] This better be good…

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My Dearest Math,

Why is Mathophobia OK? While I love you with all my heart, it is clear that there are others in this world who do not. Why do they feel this way?

More importantly, why do they feel that they can flaunt their hatred and fear openly? I read a fantastic quote today from a friend of yours named Petra Bonfert-Taylor that gave me my ticket to this train of thought.

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math? Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading. We are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics . . . as a result, too many of us have lost the ability to examine a real-world problem, translate it into number, solve the problem and interpret the solution.

She is exactly right! For some reason, society has deemed it acceptable, even noble, to admit that they don’t get along with you. Your colleagues, Writing, Reading, and others, do not suffer the same persecution. Society has decided that you, for some reason, are an accepted target for their bigotry and bullying.

And it saddens me so.

How can they not see your beauty? How can they not see your ability to bring order from chaos? How can they not see the fun you could have together if only they could get past their mathophobia?

But, alas, society has stated its position.

Society has deemed you unworthy of its love and continues to impose that view on its children. All kids, at some point, find an adult role model: someone they want to be like. If that person proudly declares themself to be bad at math, the child hears and internalizes that. Then, when they have any kind of conflict with you, they remember what their mentor taught them: they instill in themselves mathophobia.

I suspect it’s a matter of false advertising.

Whenever people talk about you, my dearest Math, they talk about you in terms of pure practicality. They talk about you exclusively as though you were a tool to be used and cast aside. They see you as nothing but a means to an end.

Whenever people talk about you, they talk about numbers. They talk about calculations. All throughout elementary school, students are are shown this miniscule aspect of who you are. Then, when they get closer to middle school, that foundation starts to crumble. As those number start to slip away, they look anywhere they can for a life raft. They are given one in the form of a calculator.

And oh what a joy that tiny box becomes.

With the foundational knowledge that all you really are is the manipulation of numbers, they think that they have you mastered. They think that with this calculator in hand, there is no need to learn anything else about you. This tool gives them mastery over all numbers and, therefore, mastery over you.

They don’t realize that numbers are only a small part of you. They don’t realize that being able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers and thinking you understand all of math is the same as knowing what someone’s thumb looks like and thinking that you can make life decisions for them.

What if, instead, things were different?

What if, instead of focusing on numbers, we focused on patterns?

What if, instead of flaunting our mathophobia, we got excited when our children met you?

What kind of a world would that be?

I hope I get to find out.

Yours Forever,
Dexterus