I love math. And I have great admiration for its practitioners, even if I can’t understand the particular branch of the subject in which they work (and yes, that happens). I’ve written before of the thrill of developing results no one else in the world knows.
I’m sure it will come as a big surprise, but not everyone feels the same way. And why should they?
After all, few of us need to determine when two boats will meet if one begins at point A heading west at 10 miles per hour, the second from point B 100 miles to the west of A heading east at 7 miles per hour, with a current of 2 miles per hour going northeast. Whew, just reading the problem blows my mind! Furthermore, only technical folk need to know how to take the derivative of the cosine of two times x squared.
What’s different about math as opposed to some other subject such as, oh, let’s say embalming?
My guess is more people would dislike studying embalming than dislike studying math. But no one discusses embalming anxiety and I doubt attention has been given to that possible disorder while math anxiety has been the subject of much research and suggestions of therapeutic ways to treat it.
The problem is that, unlike embalming, everyone has to take math at some point in their lives. Even if it’s nothing more than learning to multiply and divide, although I suppose there’s an argument, not shared by me, even that is unnecessary with all phones having calculator apps. Back in my day we learned some esoteric hand method for taking the square root of a number. Not once in my life since have I used it. (If you haven’t ever seen this and have a sick need to check it out, take a look at https://xlinux.nist.gov/dads/HTML/squareRoot.html)
It seems everyone is an expert about education, especially legislators. After all, they’ve all gone to school, right? Although sometimes I wonder. At any rate, they are very good at increasing math anxiety for many. For example, until recently in my state, it was dictated that every high school student had to pass Algebra Two in order to graduate. I can’t think of a single reason why that should be a universal requirement. I’m pleased to say it has been scaled back to Algebra One which, I suppose, is an improvement. I believe, though, a far better required course, and such courses do exist, would concentrate on balancing checkbooks, determining the best deal among many, and seeing through the statistical lies foisted on us by those with self-serving goals.
Of course, if you teach math at a university, you tend to have to deal with students who take math, and not all of them want to. I’m sure the number of my students admitting to this lack of interest tallies in the hundreds. They are taking the math because of general education requirements or the needs of their majors.
What is heartbreaking is, because they are experiencing difficulties with the mathematics, many feel there is something basically wrong with them. This sometimes is fostered, I’m sorry to say, by parents.
How to handle such a situation. Usually I respond with something like, “Why should you like it? Or be good at it?” Then I ask the student what she does well.
I might be told she plays the piano, and I’m filled with envy. I would love to play any instrument, but, unfortunately, I have negative musical ability. And I tell her that. I emphasize the similarity we find ourselves in; it’s only the particular area of expertise that differs.
I tell the student I’ve tried hard, took piano lessons both as a child and an adult, each time eventually giving up to the great relief of the poor folk trying to advance me beyond Chopsticks.
Of course, it’s a nice philosophical conversation, and I think in general the student feels better as a result. But there’s no getting around reality and at some point she’ll say, “But I need to pass the course or I won’t graduate.”
Then it’s time to tackle the major problem, getting the student through and trying to make the experience as least unpleasant as possible. Usually, working together, we’re successful.
I think the biggest success, though, is when the student winds up recognizing that doing poorly in math does not imply unworthiness or doing poorly in life.
One of the best letters I have ever received from a former student said, “You gave me a D, but you told me I had great potential and to believe in myself. I’ve had a good and successful life.”