Friday, September 16, 2011

The Woes of Mathematics

As a warning, I am tired and quite incapable of thinking clearly at the moment. This post is going to be a jumbled mess. I am going to regret posting this at such a late hour. I am going to wish I had never posted this when I am in such a state of mind. But it's Geeky Friday, and I must post something.

It may seem quite shocking that I would write a whole post all about the dreaded math.

On the other hand, it's quite shocking that I don't like it. After all, all life is biology*, all biology is physiology, all physiology is chemistry, all chemistry is physics, and all physics is math (or however the saying goes). And I'm all about learning how and why things work.

For while I didn't know why I disliked math, other than that I did. But I think I've finally pinned down my main objections to it.

Force. I was a nerd from the very start, and avidly pursued my studies beyond what was required. But all the other subjects were so interesting and exciting to me, math tended to get neglected. My mother, therefore, had to make me sit down and do my addition and subtraction.

That brought my enthusiasm to a screeching halt.

I have the unfortunate tendency to despise anything that I feel forced to do. This is, in fact, likely the primary reason I don't drive: I was forced behind the wheel a few years ago, and I think I'm about to be forced to get my permit. I have a natural response to resist pressure.

I suppose this makes me sound like a wayward, rebellious child, but I don't think this reaction is at its root necessarily a bad thing. This is the same reflex that causes me to resist societal influences.** It's just, perhaps, taken a bit too far here.

Still, coercion is an ineffective method of imparting knowledge. As Plato said, All learning which is acquired under compulsion has no hold upon the mind.

Method of problem solving. In most cases, I'd rather toil for hours until, by trial and error, I discover the solution on my very own, than read how to solve the problem their way step by step in boring detail. I skip over bits of the process, working it out in my head, and scribble out others. (This means when I am interrupted and look down at the paper again I have no idea what I was doing or how I got there.) I attempt to forge short cuts; many don't work, but some do.

This makes me wonder what people like Einstein or Stephen Hawking thought about their schooling. Not that I am anything like them, but I suspect I am better at math than standard teaching methods allow me to realize.

Of course, this is coming from someone who feels like a mathematical genius when she correctly adds two single-digit numbers on the first try. So then again, maybe not.

Lack of science. Math is fascinating as it applies to the world. But when all I'm doing is empty equations on the paper, and solving the problems brings about no scientific revelation, it feels like my time should be better spent. Math that does nothing is boring. It is intangible and pointless and dull and if ever I could find a program that taught it as it applies practically, to science, to something, oh, I would be so happy!

Lack of milkshakes. As I was pondering all this, I suddenly remembered a long-forgotten part of my life, a time in which math was a happy event. My father used to write two very large numbers (at least, they seemed impossibly long sums at the time) and ask me to add them. When I did several of these, he made me a milkshake. I had so much fun doing that. I don't remember why that stopped.

Can't someone out there write a curriculum that teaches math in a sensible way and that puts knowledge gained to use?

Anyway, what got me thinking about all of this was The Official SAT Question of the Day, which I suppose was the ultimate purpose of this post. So there you go. Have fun. Be nerdy. I really should go to bed.

*The very best subject ever.
**Besides, of course, the conscious realization that society has issues.

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