Nothing Gold

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay. -Robert Frost

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Location: Arlington, Virginia, United States

I am a white American middle class suburban housewife trying desperately to tell herself that that is not who she is. One time I was a glowing young ruffian. Oh my God it was a million years ago.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On My Favorite Subject

Okay, so this post is going to be about one of my pet peeves. I hope that none of my friends will be offended. Of late I have heard several of my friends utter this phrase: "I'm not good at math". If you would like to understand how I feel about this, dear friends, imagine someone saying to you, "I don't like music". You would be understandably baffled. How can one not like music? The word encompasses so much. From classical to punk to country to the sounds that wind chimes and birds make. It seems utterly impossible to not be able to find one form of music to enjoy.
Well, the same is true with the word math. There are so many facets of it. There is no way for one person to be bad at them all. One does not need to be able to do addition and multiplication in one's head in order to succeed at math. That is what calculators are for. So many people have trouble memorizing times tables and figuring out fractions as children that they don't even give themselves a chance when it comes to geometry or algebra or calculus. There is an art to geometry and many who are not so good with abstract equations will find that they love geometry if only they give it a chance. The same is true with parts of calculus, but we are trained to be afraid of that word.
I happen to be good at manipulating equations. I love the perfect combination of formula and ingenuity that must be used to solve a tricky proof. It makes me feel like a detective. Did you ever play detective as a child? You follow various clues and finally solve your problem and it makes you feel like the smartest child in the world, even if your problem was that the cat was hiding under your bed. That is how certain types of math make me feel. I cannot say that that is how math makes me feel, because that word means so much. There are parts of math that I am not so good at. In college I was pretty good at optimization and matrix math and I was very good at probability and stochastic processes, but I was not so good at real analysis or multivariable calculus. Now, I'm afraid that you I'm not good at math peple saw some of those words and were afraid and automatically assumed that you would not be good at those things. Therein lies the problem. How can you assume that you are bad at something if you don't even know what it means? You might be really good at it.
This problem is extremely pervasive and starts with very young children. If a child doing homework asks mom, "what's the square root of 49?", and she doesn't remember she says, "oh, I was never any good at math". What the child hears is, "that's not important, it's okay to dismiss it by saying you're no good at it". If the child asks, "what's the capitol of Peru?" or "Who wrote The Secret Garden?" or "In what year did Lewis and Clark start their expedition?", her answer will be, "Let's look it up". The thing is that math problems such as the square root of 49 are nothing more than memorization. Knowing it requires the exact same skill as knowing the answers to the other questions. So, why is it okay to dismiss math as too hard, but not literature, history or geography? This child will begin to think that she too is bad at math because she has trouble with all the memorization involved in early math. Then she will grow up thinking that she is bad at math and she will never give herself a fair chance. This is especially common with girls, who are already expected by society to be bad at math. So, please cease saying that you are bad at math, especially around children.


Blogger Schuyler said...

I'm telling you, you're like the analogy queen. It's impossible to argue with you when you come up with these brilliant and entirely apt analogies. To argue with them just makes you look stupid. And I agree with your sentiment. You'll have to teach me probability some day.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

guilty as charged.
I wish I had a math teacher who was visionary and global like you, Maggie. Because my experience of math was foundational; you took one class to get to another. So that, when calculus broke my back and stole my soul and laughed in my face, I walked away and never looked back and began saying the phrase which is now unutterable.
So let me clarify: I have trouble memorizing stuff, and so I struggled with addition and multiplication tables. But I loved and excelled at geometry, and did well in algebra. But I quit with calculus. So maybe if I had a math guide like you, I would have gone on to some other math discipline and solved the oil crisis or become a cool auto-industry engineer or something glamorous like that. So I hereby repent of my math trashtalking, and hope that I haven't biased your son against this important discipline.
You make a great point, though, about the interrelationships within school subjects. For example, I had an intuitive sense of grammar and spelling as a kid, and so never really learned grammar. So when I tried to study languages I was in trouble (besides my memorization of vocabulary being a challenge). But later in my language courses when we would talk about linguistics, I found my groove. Kind of confused my professors when the slow kid hiding in the corner suddenly had something to contribute.

12:53 PM  
Blogger kate said...

By the way, what's up with Schuyler's cute Levi photo? I miss it. :(
I like this -- a blog entry in defense of math. I didn't find it interesting or fun until algebra, so I know what you mean. Except, I don't, because clearly you are cut from a different, smarter cloth. :) Cool stuff, though. I hope Lizzy likes math.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Maggie said...

Mike, of course you haven't biased Levi against math. I didn't mean anything to be taken personally, a lot of people say that they are bad at math.

5:01 PM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

I loved math ... it was one of my favorite subjects in high school. But when it came time to pick ... I went with people and history and politics in college. But I love the patterns and beauty of math. It's glorious!! It's one of the reasons I love quilting ... you'd be surprised how much math I use and abuse. And ... I always tell my kids to look up math problems. Well, I really tell them to work it out, and then I help them do just that, because I don't want them to be afraid of it ... cause I love math.

10:09 PM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

oh yeah ... and my very favorite thing in geometry was proofs. WOW!! I loved them ... they were the best. And now you know what an absolute geek I am. And then I loved algebra, I really like making equations work ... there's something really lovely about it. But I gave out when I got to Calculus ... and decided I wanted to study history more.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Deanna said...

I love this post - beautifully written and SO true. It's interesting that you came to your love of statistics via proofs. I only tolerated proofs - they seemed so theoretical to me - but I loved boolean algebra (still do - a good Venn diagram will make my day) and probability. I love that we're both fans of applied math. Too bad neither of us has daughters. We'll have to mentor Lily and Sophie and Lizzy instead - unless you end up with a daughter next time around!

8:37 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

I loved math until I had a teacher that didn't like me or maybe I didn't like her and surmised that she must not like me. Anyways it kind of ruined my love of math up until the 10th grade and your post made me wish I hadn't let it.

11:40 PM  

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