Mathematics is Wasted on the Incompetent


The following appeared in The Pitt News, 2000.

Photograph of railroad ravine, North Oakland.

(When I showed this picture to an attractive girl

from out of town, hoping to impress her with my artiness,

her eyes widened. She exclaimed: “It jumped!”)

y = mx + b

This equation is my finest accomplishment in mathematics. Not only do I remember it years after I learned it, but I even know what it means. With this little baby, I can perform infinite Cartesian tricks, sending lines and curves flashing across the axes, making angles, squares, and—on a good day—a few undulating waves.

The equation also marks the farthest reaches of my mathematical understanding. After this, math is a monstrous question mark. My eighth grade algebra teacher strove courageously to teach me more—cosines and exponential notation; growth and decline; and those cursed alphas, thetas and epsilons—but it was all for naught. Day after day, he squeaked thick blue marks onto his plastic overheads, encouraging me as best he could: “Come on, it’s easy,” he’d say, or “Look, just plug it back into the equation,” or “Stop crying crying, kid, you’re embarrassing me.”

My efforts were tireless. In ninth grade, when I retook algebra, I spent two hours each sitting with the teacher. She would watch as I scribbled down the dreaded formulas, pointing out my mistakes by saying, “No, no, you can’t put a negative sign there. Remember what we learned last period?”

Of course, I hadn’t. Somehow, her lectures mashed together in my head, mixing into a dyslexic gibberish.

“Chi square the results… multiply through… first, outside, inside… find the derivative and divide by… Robert, are you with us?”

“Yes! What was the question?”

“How much will the stock be worth in 1988?”

“1988? But that was seven years ago!” Subtraction I could do blindfolded. But who had the resources to invest in stocks? I was only fifteen!

As soon as we stopped studying proofs, geometry was no longer interesting to me. Logic is nice and practical, but perfect spheres and parallelograms just don’t exist in reality. What’s the use of calculating the volume of my milk carton? I’d think. There has to be some more worthwhile purpose for all this.

Useful or not, math still eluded me from the onset of Algebra II. For the first time, I earned a B instead of C, but only because my 11th grade teacher was more easygoing. I had already mastered enough arithmetic to balance a checkbook, count the number of days till Christmas, and pick out flaws in basic statistics. What did I need all this other junk for?

Like every new college student, I took the math placement exam. Just for fun, I tried the German exam as well. The only German I had ever studied was from Living Language cassette courses. Much to my surprise, I placed into Intermediate German I (basically, German 3). But after three years of algebra, one year of geometry, and a semester studying scientific mathematics, I placed into algebra, again. I could have hibernated for the duration of my adolescent life and performed as well. I could have misspelled my name, dribbled saliva all over the exam, or scratched up the paper with crayons. It didn’t matter. I was doomed to suffer through another four months of the “FOIL” method.

Wasn’t it already obvious that I was an idiot? I sat in recitations and drew mean-spirited faces in the margins of my homework. My book didn’t retain those hip  high school photos of smiling mathematicians in exotic countries; now, there were only cold graphs and an eye-piercing typeface. The fantasy that this might be fun or even interesting had dissolved. My professor (for whom I’ll use the pseudonym “Dr. X”) was impressively unsympathetic. If he did trigonometric functions at the breakfast table, why couldn’t Neanderthals like me?

“I try to fail everybody,” Dr. X once sneered, “but somehow people keep passing.” Har, har.

Appreciating mathematics was never a problem—I give my blessing to Einstein, Hawking and all the engineers who ever lived. The people who build bridges, design toasters and develop ways to explore space have my envy. But those of us who can’t pass algebra will never discover how these numbers connect to the real world. The process of factoring is no more substantial than pulling a rabbit out of a hat—they are in turn mysterious, magical, and ultimately, forgettable.


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