I love math. I understand some people probably shuddered just reading that; but I’ve always loved math. Like anyone, I go through droughts where I don’t even want to look at numbers; but somehow I always come back. Math is a wonderful world to get lost in, and I couldn’t be happier to be caught up in it.
That being said, it wasn’t until I entered the University of Connecticut that I got a sense of why it speaks to me, and even then it wasn’t right away. Stepping outside of my own experience, it’s no secret that many people have a phobia of the subject. Someone who isn’t quantitatively inclined can only take so many years of grade school number crunching before they snap.
That’s a real shame, though, especially as it becomes increasingly clear to me that the point of math isn’t just the mindless manipulation of numbers. When I think of “doing math,” I think of arguments and structure and formalism. I think of the struggle we undertake to understand the world better. I think of the communities that math brings together, the collaboration in the pursuit of something greater.
Math is not so different from English, contrary to the “reading, writing, arithmetic” dichotomy that we are raised on. I write these articles week after week for the same reason I write proofs: To see through an argument. So, where does mathematics go wrong to alienate so many?
The problem is that we aren’t really teaching math; we’re teaching quantitative skills. Now, in a world dominated by computers, financiers and STEM jobs, we need people to know good old-fashioned number crunching. This doesn’t need to come at the expense of the more beautiful, artful side of mathematics, though. The benefits of a strong math background have other benefits on general education.
Any sort of proof-writing is foreign to most high schoolers, as it is usually pushed until the university level. At UConn, it is first formally taught in a class called “Transitions to Advanced Mathematics.” But that’s patently ridiculous, as there’s nothing particularly advanced about learning basic logic and argument. Even younger children can understand the concept. I know this because, when I worked as a math tutor for elementary and middle school children, I was able to teach basic proof techniques to fourth graders with great success. And you know what? It was the most excited I’ve ever seen them about math.
There are many ways in which formally teaching students about logic and math can help us all. Many more students would be interested in learning more math if their introduction to it was not just repetitive quantitative work. Considering math describes the underpinnings to the way pretty much everything works, this is good on its own. A more refined logical background can help in many fields, from philosophy to computer science to linguistics and so on. Formal reasoning skills can also help to create a more aware and educated populace, which is especially important in the (mis)information age.
Of course, the reason we are so quantitatively minded is because it pays to be. When engineering is as lucrative as it is, can you really blame parents and schools for wanting to focus on it? Meanwhile, there’s no particular societal incentive to understanding reason. It’s more abstractly useful, although I would argue every bit as essential. If that is the only reason for this focus, though, then that’s a shame. It’s soulless and beyond reductionist of education.
If we can teach students about literary analysis, we can teach them about proof writing. If we can claim there are transferable skills in learning about the natural sciences, then surely we can say the same to get kids to learn a truth table or two. There is no excuse for the way that pre-college education systematically destroys any of the enjoyment in mathematics. This isn’t the fault of any individual teacher; it represents a failing on our curriculum and our culture.
I hate telling people I study math only to hear about how they hate the subject. How can they hate it when they don’t even know what really makes it interesting? There is so much more to mathematics than most people realize, and I desperately want others to see what I see in it. That is why we must do better to teach formal mathematics at a young age.
Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.