Hot take: I love mathematics. From basic addition to multivariable calculus, learning and discovering the intricacies of how math works is absolutely fascinating. My late grandmother was a mathematics professor in Turkey, and so I was taught to admire and respect numbers from a young age. Now that I’m in college, I’ve devoted myself to the study of math.
My love of mathematics runs deep, so it pains me when I tell someone that I am pursuing a degree in mathematics and their knee-jerk response is to grimace and tell me “I hate math,” or something in the same vein. I understand, perhaps better than many, that math can be criminally difficult. I spend hours every day pouring over notes, re-reading textbooks, and listening to the great Sal Khan of Khan Academy just to keep afloat sometimes.
When someone tells me they don’t like math, or they were never good at math, I venture to say at least one of two things hold true: they’re clinging to the pre-disposition that the material is too difficult and shut themselves off from being willing to learn, or they weren’t taught the material in a way they could understand.
Being a math tutor, I’ve realized that often, just breaking down mathematical concepts and showing the material in different ways can make a world of difference for someone struggling to understand something. One of the students I tutored this past spring credits me with getting her to the point where she could pass her math class. I didn’t do anything too crazy — all it took was explaining the problems and solutions slowly and modeling how one theorem connected to another.
Unfortunately, problems aren’t always solved by showing how the math works. A lot of learning math, and learning generally, is about the willingness to learn. Walking into a math class thinking “this is going to be too tough to learn and I’m incapable of understanding it” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Much like learning to play a sport for the first time, understanding math has a lot to do with mental fortitude. A little bit of gumption can go a long way in the world of academia.
At Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, I spoke at length with Dr. Steven Warner, one of the professors in the mathematics department. In his eyes, the biggest problem facing high school and middle school students with respect to their mathematical education is a weak background stemming from elementary school. Not to say that elementary school teachers aren’t doing their jobs well — I recognize that being a teacher, especially for kids that young, is extremely difficult. However, elementary school teachers are not required to be mathematicians. When an elementary school teacher doesn’t love math, that attitude is imprinted on the students in the classroom.
Ultimately, it’s up to both the student and the teacher to close this gap. Not everybody is going to love math as much as I do, and I don’t expect everyone to be lining up to be a math major — that’s just unrealistic. What is feasible, though, is cultivating a new culture in education that creates a solid mathematical base for everyone, and an appreciation for the subject. I hope someday that more people will be able to appreciate the wonderful world of math, even if they don’t like it.