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Start Mathematics: Rejection or Convenience?
23 December 2013

Mathematics: Rejection or Convenience?

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In our daily lives we often hear the following kinds of expressions: “That’s like trying to square the circle, “There are still unknown quantities to be resolved”, “The common denominator of those events was…”, “The casting-out-nines test for a certain matter is…”, etc. It is thus clear that language borrows a number of expressions from mathematics (or uses expressions that were taken from mathematics at some point in the past), and almost always when we want to express an opinion on subjects that most people consider to be serious. I tend to think that language envies the rigor of mathematics and is critical of its own resources. That’s why we hear expressions like “Don’t tell such tall stories”, “You’re such a drama queen”, etc. I don’t ever recall hearing expressions like “Don’t give me all that garbage about S.C.I.” or “You’re always spouting theorems”.

On the other hand, it’s evident that not everyone feels well disposed towards mathematics. Quite the opposite: we often see signs of society’s dismissal of mathematics. Let us illustrate this with some examples. In 2000, World Mathematical Year, the following lines appeared in a newspaper: “We’ve had enough of all this affectation”. A film director, in an article about the city of his birth, expressed the following sentiment when recalling his school days: “We had to return to the terror of fractions”. Another film director said in an interview that he had nightmares where he woke up in a cold sweat thinking of polynomials. An advertisement for a children’s teatime snack at the end featured a shot of an exercise book with some equations, while a voice announced: “Even this snack won’t be enough to help you get through them”. When someone is asked to do an arithmetic operation, particularly when paying for something, people often evade the issue by claiming: “I studied the humanities option at school/university”. When a film or television series wants to stereotype a children’s character as a swot, they are usually given a calculator and some trigonometry tables. So here we have some examples of situations where math plays the role of bad guy. But why does this happen? Why is there such a manifest rejection of mathematics? Why don’t people say “That’s enough of that affectation” when referring to literary figures or historians? Why a terror of fractions and not a terror of syntactical analysis or subordinate clauses or stylistic resources and rhyme? Why not have nightmares where you awake in a cold sweat thinking about the plays of Valle-Inclán or Buero Vallejo? Why in that advertisement were we not shown an unlabeled map to be completed, works of ancient statuary or Latin declensions?

I don’t think this can be attributed to a single cause. However, in my opinion, there is one thing that has a significant effect on encouraging a certain rejection of mathematics: the way we are tested and found not to know our math well enough in our school years. However, this doesn’t happen with any other subject. When faced with a poor grade in literary analysis, we can always save face by claiming in the playground, with our classmates or at home with our family that our opinions, improvisations and intuitions were misunderstood. But what can we do when confronted with the answer sheet for an exam on equations covered in the teacher’s crosses? Isn’t it the case that we feel more defenseless here?

The point I’ve just raised may partly explain why, when asked about a character in a film or novel, people answer without the slightest hesitation: “Well, I think the psychological dimension of the character…” or “The registers used by the author, director or novelist touch on highly subjective issues” or other similar phrases, instead of shrugging their shoulders and saying: “The thing is, I studied the sciences option at school/university”.

Roberto Benavent

Degree in Statistic Sciences and Techniques, Alicante (Spain).

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