Math Is a Four Letter Word

Terrific interview on Wired about the need for mathematics to be inclusive to everyone.

In his talk he framed mathematics as a pursuit uniquely suited to the achievement of human flourishing, a concept the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, or a life composed of all the highest goods. Su talked of five basic human desires that are met through the pursuit of mathematics: play, beauty, truth, justice, and love.
If mathematics is a medium for human flourishing, it stands to reason that everyone should have a chance to participate in it. But in his talk Su identified what he views as structural barriers in the mathematical community that dictate who gets the opportunity to succeed in the field—from the requirements attached to graduate school admissions to implicit assumptions about who looks the part of a budding mathematician.

I think this is one of the most frustrating things about how we interact with children today. Kids are so often asked what their favorite or least favorite subject is, and frequently children answer with something along the lines of how they just aren’t good at math, and the adults all smile and nod and accept this. This is ridiculous, we don’t let people say, “I’m just not good at reading”. Ok, well then, we should spend more time helping you read.

People seem to think that mathematics uses some special ability in which only a fraction of the populous can succeed. While this is certainly true of the most advanced concepts in math, it is absolutely not true of algebra, geometry and the others taught through high school. We forget that many civilizations used math far before they developed written language. One of the reasons we know so little about these ancient wonders such as Stonehenge is because these things were created by civilizations which hadn’t yet started writing down their thoughts. Clearly a lot of problem solving went into building these architectural wonders.

Counting and recognizing patterns are two things the human brain does in spades. These are the foundations of math. Right now, it is socially acceptable to say that you do not like math/are not good at math. This attitude should be met with the same disdain/concern as someone admitting they do not know how to read.