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Friday, September 04, 2015

You’re Not Actually Bad at Math

"A new way to think about how to reason." writes Chase Felker, Slate software engineer.

Math is generally a required subject for students in the United States until college. You might elect not to take further math classes because of a lack of aptitude—I’m not a math person. But this is the wrong reason to stop.
Photo: Slate Magazine

The idea that someone can be bad at math is wrong, and it hides several harmful assumptions. It’s an excuse to justify individual failure, rather than a real understanding of mental capabilities. Giving up on math means you don’t believe that careful study can change the way you think. No one is born knowing the axiom of completeness, and even the most accomplished mathematicians had to learn how to learn this stuff. Put another way: Writing is also not something that anyone is “good” at without a lot of practice, but it would be completely unacceptable to think that your composition skills could not improve.

Additionally, people tend to judge math too soon. While you might struggle with early math classes, you might not in the advanced ones because the material can differ wildly. A third-year–level class is not necessarily three times as much work as a first-year class; it might actually be less, since the material and methods get easier as you spend more time with them. I had this experience in high school. Until I took a class called Combinatorics, the hardest class I ever took was Algebra I. I had never felt so hopeless and confused, and whenever I was told my answer was correct, I was convinced I was faking it. College math wasn’t easy either, but my struggles were more isolated, and I learned how to break down problems and point to what didn’t make sense.

But the strangest part of math phobia is that math is pure logic, abstract reasoning, and clear writing. I don’t mean this metaphorically: This is literally what math is. Any result can be reduced back to simpler ones until you reach assumed statements called axioms. Simple doesn’t mean easy, but I think math has fewer moving parts than most other subjects. Consider all the things you need to know to be a student of literature: You need a rich understanding of language, history, context, and literary devices. Math explicitly lays out its assumptions in terms that everyone agrees on. Or consider other sciences: They can reduce results back to simpler results like math can, but we are ultimately stuck with whatever part of reality we are able to measure. Math’s foundations rest on logic instead of reality. I don’t mean to compare math with other subjects to advance a claim of math’s superiority or importance. Instead, my point is that, in principle, if students think they can’t study math, then something is deeply wrong.

Source: Slate Magazine