On Not Knowing Math

8 May 1999–

for Ruth Greenwald, with immense gratitude, and Eugenie Hunsicker, with best wishes for the future

The other day I was talking to a girl from my English class, having, for the umpteenth time, the “I Suck at Math” Bonding Conversation. There are, of course, a number of these conversations among college students, the most popular being the “I Had No Friends in High School” Bonding Conversation and the “I Will Be Paying Back Student Loans Until the Year 20xx” Bonding Conversation, and I have engaged in all of them many times. Generally speaking, with the exception of the student loan conversation, these discussions have a limited basis in fact and are more like histories which you invent in order to better fit in with the group of people you now find yourself with. In my case, though, none is such a fabrication as the “I Suck at Math” speech, because it’s not true. I’m good at math, and while I do not have the natural affinity for it that I feel for languages and literature, I still like it pretty well. And yet over and over, I find myself saying, in order to fit in better, “Oh yeah, I’m no good at math either. All those weird little symbols, all that definition–it’s just beyond me.” And I’m guessing that the same is true for at least a few other people.

But why? What is so awful about math that people feel a need to hide from it, that people brag about their lack of ability with it? I have never once heard someone say with pride that she can hardly compose an English sentence, much less string several of them together in order to make a point, although I know many people for whom that is the case. Of course, there is an on-going cultural tendency towards telling girls that they’re not naturally apt at math and that they don’t need to be. A great deal has been written about this, and I often think it’s a rather tired issue, until I remember that there were traces of it even here, in my supposedly liberal, highly educated town.

I was lucky enough, for my first two years of high school, to study math under Ruth Greenwald, surely the best teacher, of any subject, that I or any of her other students have ever had. Miss Greenwald was not just a teacher of mathematics, she was, more than anyone I have met, a true teacher of liberal arts, a teacher of thinking. In that class you did, as William Blake put it, “see a world in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.” Ruth Greenwald was also adamant about excellence, and adamant about behavior. Excitement and inquiry were welcome in her class; showing off was not. And you were never permitted to do less than you could. I still have, tucked away in my filing cabinet, an algebra test with the grade D, and the injunction, “You can do better!” That is the only time I have ever been told that–and not because my work was always of top quality. The very next year, in Pre-Calc, I had a different teacher, whose methods bored me. I quickly lost interest, and my work began to slip. This teacher informed me at the end of the year that if I took AP Calculus, I would flunk it, and encouraged me to sign up for something called Discrete Mathematics. I told her if she didn’t want me in her class, I wasn’t going to bother with math at all, and I took an extra free hour.

It was that conversation, I think, that began my earnest participation in the “I Suck at Math” conversations. I do not think that that teacher’s comment was particularly related to my being female, for I know a number of other young women who liked her and viewed her as a role model. This teacher was popular, and she won a number of teaching awards, based mostly on the numbers of her students who went on to score well on the AP Calc exam. I think it is more likely that she didn’t view me as a potential high scorer and therefore didn’t want me in her class–by contrast, she encouraged several exchange students who were doing well to take the exam–to spend $70 on a test which would have no relevance when they returned home, just because they would do well on it. What sickens me is the idea that only the superior students were worth bothering with, that those who were merely good, or mediocre, were, rather than encouraged, shunted aside. I suspect this happens in all subjects, but math seems particularly prone to it. Why exactly that is will remain a subject for a future issue–this is long enough already.

NOTES: Some of you have sent in favorite poem submissions (see A New Rambler Supplement, 4/26/99)–thank you. As for the rest of you, while Pinksy’s collection is over, the doors here at The New Rambler remain open, so send ’em on.

The title of this issue, as some of you may know, is borrowed from Virginia Woolf’s excellent essay “On Not Knowing Greek”–but my explanation of the relation between math and Classics will also have to wait for another day.

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