Of all the subjects we are forced to study in school, people seem to reserve their bitterest revulsion for mathematics. What is it about this elegant and pure field of knowledge that invokes such terror?
A recent unofficial survey revealed that around 70% of the worlds schoolchildren claimed to “hate maths”. A quick search on social network sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo and I uncovered dozens of groups dedicated to anti-maths sentiment, with a combined membership of thousands of people. Here in Ireland, Maths has the highest failure rate of any subject at school-leaving level. Why does mathemathics seem to inspire fear and intimidation in students around the world? What is it about this subject that reduces the linguistically gifted and the musically adept to tears of frustration?
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Of course, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses at school. Some excel at languages, others art or music. Some of us find our niche in history or geography, and others feel at home in the chemistry lab or the gym. There are very few Renaissance men or women in our ranks, all-rounders who refuse to restrict themselves to one area. For the most part we pick and choose our favourite subjects, based on what comes easy to us. And many of us decide that maths is not for us, that we will never grasp it, and we cave in.
Throughout my academic life, I have had a conflicted relationship with numbers and symbols. My marks have swung from the occasional A grade to the dreaded D, or worse. I spent a lot of time wondering why I disliked maths (time which probably should have been spent doing homework). The strange thing was, I had a good teacher. I continued learning maths at the highest level there was, miraculously scraping by each time.
One of the things about maths that irked me was it’s sneakiness. Math wanted to trick you. It wanted to get the better of you. It sent you down avenues that would give you invalid answers, and then you had to start again using another method. Math also confused me because it wasn’t words. Call me arrogant, but I’ve always been able to sort of make stuff up when armed with language, words, phrases. People would say “Well, at least there is only one answer in math”. I thought, “Yes, but what if the question is asked in a language you understand?”. Maths was stoic, cold, hostile. It didn’t care for your opinions – it wanted the truth.