Math has problems


My earliest introduction to math was positive. I happily held up my fingers, repeating after the teacher, “One plus one equals two,” joyfully unaware of what was to come.

One day, however, after the class sang a particularly moving rendition of the Alphabet Song, the teacher asked us to raise our hands. At her bidding, I held up my short, stubby fingers expecting to do addition. Without warning she said, “Now we’re going to take away one of your fingers.” Imagine my terror. Which one? And how? By sharp knife or chewed off by wild animals? I was relieved that I didn’t have to give her the finger; she only wanted me to bend it, but the image has haunted me all of my life.

Not too much later, the teacher began vaporizing numbers before my eyes, wanton obliteration of numbers which she euphemistically called “reducing them to zero.” Thankfully this early and repeated exposure to the ideas of removing fingers and total annihilation, all taught coolly and calmly with no emotion, and by an elementary school teacher, did not blind me to the callousness of arithmetic. No wonder I cried at math time.

Eventually, I grew used to the carnage around me and learned to accept both subtraction and zero with only an occasional outburst of conscience. Others I knew were not so fortunate.They loved slicing up numbers like so much pizza, and this attitude carried over into other parts of their lives. Some went on to split infinitives and leave participles dangling precariously. Years later, some of my classmates having learned that acts of violence against numbers had no consequences, went to English classes, where they attempted to murder the English language.

I passed through this early period with little outward effect and viewed math as a necessary evil. But when I got to algebra, I grew hopeful. Immediately I was introduced to variables. Letters at last, I thought; words cannot be far behind. But no, the  teacher wanted me to find “x” first. I didn’t mind; I enjoy helping others. The following day, he asked me to find it again. I wanted to remind him that I had found it once already and had even heard that my sister had found it two years before that. When he asked me to find the hypotenuse of a triangle, I wanted to speak to him about his carelessness. Not being able to find an occasional “x” or “y” is understandable. We all misplace items. However, the teacher had elevated carelessness to an art, regularly losing all the variables from “a” to “z” along with hundreds of hypotenuses a day. Outwardly he expressed a love for mathematics, but his disregard for individual numbers and variables showed the true condition of his heart.

Euclid's students express surprise when he gives birth to Geometry (Thankfully, Wikipedia was there to get this picture.)

Quadrants were introduced along with the strange question, “Where’s the point?” It became clear to me that mathematicians had difficulty finding the point of it all because they spent too much time with negative numbers. All that negativity rubs off on a person after a while. Soon they feel depressed and start plotting things. Sadly, there is no turning back from that slippery slope.

During this traumatic time, I was most disappointed by the so-called “word problems.” Perhaps this was because I longed for words, for dialogue, and a clear resolution. But the difficulties I encountered in these problems were not due to words, so much as a lack of words. Invariably the narrative lacked creativity and the characters were shallow. The story would have Jack leaving Chicago at 8 a.m. driving 50 mph, and Linda leaving Milwaukee at the same time, but driving 30 mph. Suddenly the teacher would ask me what time Jack and Linda would meet. However, I could not get past the fact that Jack was leaving. I was intrigued. What happened to cause Jack to leave Chicago? Did he bother to pack or leave a note? At 8 a.m. how could he possibly leave Chicago at 50 mph? The few times I had been through Chicago with my parents, the fastest we could travel was about 30 mph, but in the congested areas it was more like 20 mph. So there must have been a mistake; it must have been in the middle of the night. But why the haste? Was he being chased? If so, by whom? If it was the Mafia, then there was little hope he would ever meet up with Linda. And I wondered about her. At only 30 mph, she seemed less eager to see Jack than he was to see her. Why the hesitation? I needed more information, and yet, none was forthcoming.

I believe that the root of the problem is in the numbers themselves. Spartan and stoical, numbers tend to stand alone, need little beyond themselves, and shun excess. The less said, the better. Words, on the other hand, are epicurean, appealing to our senses. They tend to be generous, lavish, sensuous, even excessive. The mathematician uses words like numbers, comes up with a story of 25 words or less, and then asks others to help with the plot line.

Then there is the issue of inequality. Math is un-American. Mathematicians teach that some numbers are greater than others and always will be. Have they never read the Constitution and what it says about equality? They show no care or sympathy for the weaker or lower numbers, compare them shamelessly to bigger numbers, and yet count on them to be there when they need them.

Another concern is number procreation, or as it is more commonly called, multiplication. Numbers mate indiscriminately and often, more often than many may imagine, divide again. What exactly is this teaching young, impressionable minds?  What is equally disturbing is the mating of the positive numbers with the negative numbers. This leads to more negative numbers, which as I mentioned leads to depression.  It’s true that something positive does come out of two negative numbers mating, however, astronomers, all stellar mathematicians, have created imaginary negative numbers whose offspring are also negative. I suspect this comes of so much time spent staring out into darkness. Perhaps a day job is recommended.

Mathematics breeds a sense of hopelessness. Like women’s work, there is no end to it; at the end of the day there is always at least one more number to count. Numbers go on and on forever; there is no stopping them. I empathize; I have relatives like that. And it is not just the numbers. Those confounded numbers lines also go on forever like Saturday at the grocery store.

Am I going to pretend I am blameless? No, friends, for I, too, have participated in the dark side of math. I could try to proclaim my innocence by saying, “Yes, I played around with equations when I was young, but I never solved any.” But I admit, I bowed to peer pressure and spent many late nights doing things to numbers that even my math teachers considered wrong.

Is math a problem? Actually, it is many problems. How do we solve these problems? I don’t know; that’s why I’m sharing my story with you. Perhaps you know of a solution.