A Rant about Math

In which I take issue with this culture of fearing and mocking intelligence, and the T-shirt that makes it sound as if it’s all right to do so.

I know you’ve seen it–on either the bumper sticker or the T-shirt or the meme.  The sentiment that reads, “Yet another day has passed and I didn’t use Algebra.” Or the one that says, “I’m an English major; you do the math.” I understand the humor behind it; it’s punny, it’s sarcastic, it’s ironic. Heck, I’ve even used some version of it myself.  I regret that. I don’t find it funny any longer. The more I think about it, the more disturbed I get. No, it’s not a major important issue in our society, but it troubles me nonetheless. Here’s why.

First the goal of this sentiment is to make the displayer feel superior to all those teachers and students who love math and use it; and it somehow tries to make their accomplishments unimportant. As an author you’d think I never use math, but you’d be wrong. Just the other day someone asked me to edit an essay. I moved sentences around to form a logical argument and wrote in my comments, “See, you still use your Geometry for writing. Remember proofs?” Geometry proofs teach logical thinking. It doesn’t require numbers.  And looking at royalty statements, taxes, business expenses–all a part of writing–does require some number acuity.

Here’s one for Algebra that does use numbers: if you go the grocery store and they offer 5 for $3.00, but you only want to buy one. Ta da: Algebra. So what? you say. You still don’t really use it. Well, do you really use history, art, dance, PE, wood shop, or science every day? And having read many, many essays, emails, tweets, and manuscripts, I would say some of you don’t even use English every day. Besides, you probably do use Algebra for simple equations more often than you think, only it’s so ingrained in your head that you don’t even recognize you’re using them (think about calculating expenses, or date entry, or comparing the price of cell phones.)

And there are many many people who do “use” Algebra every day. And even higher levels of math. Robot Guy is one of them. He told me to consider formulae and equations as a language. I use words to create; he uses math. Engineers are highly creative people. Their language is just different.

Math is about problem solving. The skills you learn, the way you look for solutions is math. It’s something that your brain was trained to do in math class. Besides, why is it bad to have knowledge that you don’t necessarily use everyday? I like to learn things just for the sake of knowing them. You never know when you may appear on Jeopardy! Or just play Trivial Pursuit with the family.

I don’t like the trend I’ve seen lately of intelligence shaming. Suddenly being smart is not something people value. TV does it. Look at the Big Bang Theory, a show I like and enjoy, but when you think about it, it makes fun of those members of society we label smart. No, I don’t believe going to school necessarily equals being smart, but this fear of knowledge that pervades our culture right now is a trend I’d like to see stop.

Yeah, I’m taking this too seriously. You don’t have to tell me.


Books I’m reading now:

Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens by JK Rowling

2 thoughts on “A Rant about Math

  1. I appreciate the desire to resist the ‘I got through life without using algebra!’ joke, but it feels to me like characterizing ‘what’s the cost of one thing if it’s five-for-$3.00’ is an over-broad use of the word ‘algebra’. It’s arithmetic, certainly, and a calculation that’s convenient to be able to do, but that feels like it falls short of being algebra. I think you need to find something by considering partial information from different sources before you have something that’s truly algebra.

    1. Well, of course it’s simplistic. I’m not writing a column about math for math people; I’m writing about the stigma of being considered smart and the superiority that the slogan is intended to imply. As I said above, I enjoyed learning math just for the sake of learning it and having the knowledge.

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