More on Math

I got a great comment in regard to my post on math phobia:

“Unfortunately, mathematical education tends to bore students to death. Imagine if we had been required to diagram sentences for 12 years, and were never given anything interesting to read. I was never much interested in math until, as a college student, I enjoyed a more visual approach. I hate casting on, because it involves counting. I hate gauge calculations. Knitting geometry is pretty interesting.”

Math education was pretty disastrous in my day for all but the talented, the ones who almost didn’t need to be taught because they innately visualized the symbols and followed the rationale of the jargon. These lucky students thought the way the teachers thought, and anyone who didn’t think that way was considered below average. Remediation for those of us who were subnormal was a repetition of the same explanations we didn’t understand in the first place, but slower, over-enunciated, and a little louder to accommodate our half-wittedness. Math educators just didn’t know how to communicate math concepts to people who thought differently from them.

I was told that I wasn’t good at thinking abstractly. Maybe not, although I’ve managed to do quite well with abstract ideas pertaining to a wide variety of non-mathematical topics, which were introduced as tangible, real-world stories or situations that became more abstract after the tangible basics were mastered. The problem with math is that in its early stages, the concepts are completely tangible, but back in my childhood, they taught math as a disembodied set of dicta that left me in the dust from the moment they handed me my first bundle of flash cards. Applying algebraic and geometry concepts to knitting a garment, according to Elizabeth Zimmermann’s system, is the tangible application of mathematics that might have made the subject accessible to me.

Sometimes I think a bit wistfully about careers I might have gone into if I had had any alternative to the liberal arts. I’m not complaining about the way my education and subsequent career did go– I studied religions and languages and had a job that used that information and skills and everything I had ever learned anywhere, and I flourished– but I imagine that I might have been a good pathologist. I can see myself wielding a scalpel delicately and respectfully through a deceased person’s body and using my medical knowledge and analytical skills to get information that would guide law enforcement and help the family with their loss.

My daughters, who are in their 20’s, had a much better experience in their math education. When I sat in on their math classes on visitation days in their middle school years, and saw the methods the teachers used to make math understandable for the range of learning styles, I saw I could have learned math, maybe even have been pretty good at it, if I had been taught the way they were. They don’t think they are particularly good at math, but one is in medical school (not considering a specialization in pathology!) and the other chose to study language rather than having no alternative to the liberal arts.

5 thoughts on “More on Math

  1. Interesting! I was raised a scientist (physics, chemistry, biology and then med school) and my abiding wish is that I’d gone a different path and studied literature, history, history of art. Maybe the grass is always greener?

    I guess you’d class me as someone who found maths ok at school, but I still can’t design a sweater pattern 😉


    1. I led a charmed life in the liberal arts, so I’m not complaining about the way things worked out for me. It would have been nice if I could have developed my mathematical abilities to their potential.

      It’s fashionable these days for pundits to overemphasize STEM (science, technology, electronics, mathematics) and diss the liberal arts. People who can read, write, analyze complex facts and concepts, and understand cultural references are a bit under appreciated.


  2. When I was in Elementary, Middle and High School I never much liked math. I did it. I preferred creative things… still do. When I went to college I took Chemistry… with minors in… but anyways… the point is that its a quite math heavy program/process learning chem. Some of the math teachers hated teaching me. I am one of those folks with an autistic spectrum issue so teaching me means I already know it as soon as I see it and don’t know why OR we will both bang our heads until I go get it and then I am off and running like Secretariat.

    So what is my point. Well, in the lower grades… and we are talking 40 years ago… there was not support. I remember the attitudes of the teachers that you described. When I got to college and ‘saw’ it used in the whole rote fashion of doing formulas and reaction calculations and whatever, I kind of got it and there was support (it was called Remedial Tutoring) which got me through. When I started making/designing chain jewelry and more so now knitting and designing knit items, its not a matter of getting it or not. The concepts just seem natural. Image that, math concepts that just seem to be natural and make sense in an organic way.

    I think you raise good points and that you daughters were lucky to have your insights into it all. I think we are lucky to have someone like you to learn from and to discuss things like this in a way that some… many… okay, most non-creative folks would find almost as hard to understand as when we were children learning math.


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