Math: not for dummies

Posted by I'm the penguin | Posted in | Posted on Saturday, March 12, 2011

Most simpletons hate math. And it would be rather easy to say it’s because they’re stupid, and only the people who are smart can figure out where in the realm of logic is x hiding. But such a pretentious answer is not wrong based on its political correctness, but rather because of the complexity of math, society and education.

The way I think it works is this: there are some problems in our daily lives, that for practical purposes, we’ve developed a universal system of logic to crack and systematize them. That’s math, a way to use universal algorithms to solve problems that happen in reality. This last part might be the source of many of the problems we have with math in education.

Lately I’ve been following the critical views upon the present education systems, which are mostly post-industrial time instructions on how to become a reservoir of information and systematized techniques to deal with professional problems. While this is alright for an only-industrialized society, we need to leave limitless production aside and think again about innovation. We need to stop making out of education a process of information transference, and figure out how to make this information into knowledge and creativity.

What does any of this has to do with people being bad at math? Well, the way I see things, most people who hate math and see it as a complicated set of abstract complications, do so because they forget that like other sciences, math is just a way in which we describe the universe. And this disarticulation of subject-science-reality is the source of many of the educational troubles with math and science in general: kids don’t see how reality really relates with knowledge.

Now, I’m not saying simpletons are the only ones unaware of this, many other nerds just love the abstractions without realizing this either. Like everything human made, math is an intersubjective construction made by people, who learn from people and ultimately produce for people. It’s not like math came from a magic meteor who gave some people the ability to add and count. Science is made by us to describe the exterior, and as it is made by subjects it is easily flawed and biased, but our most accurately way to describe the world.

What I think education should be doing is not making kids memorize the multiples of the digits, but rather helping them realize that math is a tool we use to solve every day problems which will come up one way or the other. Not just make students repeat hundreds of multiplications, but encourage them to design logical systems that can make life easier. Techniques are important, I’m not saying they aren’t, but we should rather focus more on the concept abstraction.

By this point, a part of you must be saying: this is engineering bullshit that’s just worried about the purpose of things and how to apply them into a practical and real use. And sure, apparently under these arguments, there would be no reason for Amy, a future psychology major to learn trigonometry and function series. But my point is not really to solve the when-will-I-ever-use-this thing, rather to remind people about the science-reality relation.

So Amy is not likely to use trigonometry (unless doing vectorial personality analysis), but science is about describing the world, and if in doing so we find practical uses, great! But the main purpose is more for leisure than practical use. Science is about the beauty of being able to describe the complexities of the universe, the uncertain forces involved in holding together a quark and making us able to perceive colors. It is the excitement of knowing we possess tools to communicate with the universe, however noisy the transmissions are.

Math is not a compendium of computerized process we insert in education in order to prepare proficient workers. It is a human construction of logic algorithms which describes reality in a very organized manner, and we need it for everyday tasks, but it is also another field to develop curiosity and encourage creativity. And formal education should make this distinction so everyone is aware that missing out on mathematics is not just failing a course, it is failing to perceive the beauty of the universe.

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