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“I do not play this instrument so well as I should wish to, but I have always supposed that to be my own fault because I would not take the trouble of practicing.”
— Elizabeth Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Math is a language. It’s often referred to as the “universal language,” and many science fiction stories use math as the primary means of communication between humans and an alien intelligence. Stephen Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind uses music as the mathematical medium of communication between humans and aliens. The number “3” plays an important role in the novel Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and the film Mission to Mars. The right angles of geometry cause grand-mal seizures in the brilliant novel Blindsight, a story of first contact by Peter Watts. While sapient beings may have developed different linguistic concepts, counting and other mathematical concepts remain more or less the same. (At least with humans on Earth. Turns out the entire idea of using math to communicate with aliens is actually far more complicated.)
Characters who are good at math are usually stereotyped as cold, analytical thinking machines with poor social skills, hyperfocus towards their given subject of interest, and a lack of empathy or connection with fellow human beings. Sometimes this is played for laughs like in the TV show The Big Bang Theory. Sometimes it is played for sympathy, with the implication that they live lonely, unfulfilled lives because of their obsession with numbers and logic. Or it is portrayed as sinister. Math is used by evil geniuses to create weapons of destruction like Lex Luthor, or creates sentient killer robots who consider emotion an abomination like Skynet and its Terminators. Usually these math-centric characters are male; if a woman gets into the role, she is portrayed as unfeeling and unfeminine who needs to be softened by the sweet madness of romantic love. It’s rare to see a character who likes or who is good at math presented as a real, normal, functional human being.
But outside the realm of fiction, much of our daily lives are shaped and made possible by math. Unfortunately, it is reviled and pushed away as something only natural geniuses can aspire to, so us normal folks can revel in our ignorance. There’s even a name for it: “math anxiety.” The lack of mathematical knowledge tends to be celebrated, or at least presented as an amusing trope rather than a serious deficiency. There is no other area in education that gets a cultural pass like this.
Granted, it can be hard to see the daily application of math outside the mundane functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and maybe some work with percentages or decimal points. Unless you become an architect or a scientist or a math teacher, why would you need more than that? But that isn’t the be-all, end-all of math. In fact, those operations of Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, while useful, are not really the point. The deeper, more fundamental purpose of math is to teach critical thinking skills, to learn how to analyze and break apart problems in order to solve them. (This is something I didn’t realize until many years after I left college, thanks to my friendly neighborhood math teacher, David Greenshell.)
Okay, so math is important, but a blog about writing seems like an odd place to discuss it. Don’t think any of this applies to you as a writer? Au contraire, mon amie. One of the things I learned about in my DIY MFA 101 class was about the importance of setting goals. But I SUCK at goal-setting. I look at a project and see the entire thing at once. I can’t break it down into smaller components, nor is it easy for me to figure out what smaller, achievable steps are needed to get me where I need to go. And I think that relates directly back to a lack of math skills. Because I have no idea where to even begin tackling a math problem, I also have no idea how to tackle large, complex tasks. Like writing and promoting a book. It makes an already monumental task even more overwhelming and demoralizing, which is the last thing I need.
So what to do about it? Well, I think that a change of attitude is in order. Like so many other kids, I’ve gone through life thinking I was “bad at math,” even though there are points where I was actually very good at it. Now I try to catch myself before tossing out a line about not being good at math because that only propagates the myth. I’m trying to look at these large problems and goals like a math problem, considering it carefully, seeing all of the elements, and proceeding in a logical fashion rather than flailing wildly, hoping that something will magically work. I have to fight that surge of anger and frustration at myself that comes whenever I am presented with a problem that seems too daunting. And I’m still not very good at it. This is something I’ll need to practice for the rest of my life, and I know I won’t succeed every time. Being aware of a problem and recognizing it is the first step in addressing it. I hope that by bringing up this topic, by addressing the connection between math, critical thinking, and the writing process, that others will become aware of it. Then we can make improvements to help us achieve those lofty goals… and maybe make the world a better, more informed place while we’re at it.
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(Many thanks to David for sharing the article “Stop telling kids you’re bad at math. You are spreading math anxiety like a virus” by Petra Bonfert-Taylor in The Washington Post, which inspired me to write this entry.)