Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Math isn’t dull

(Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr)
(Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr)

All students have heard it before.

“When are we ever going to use this?” This phrase has probably entered every student’s mind at one point or another in various contexts. However, one subject in particular has probably been on the receiving end of this statement more than the others: math.

The word itself evokes images of complex equations, graphs, variables and frustration. It has actually been known to light up the areas of the brain related to pain when the mere idea of doing it is presented to a person. For new students entering the University of Massachusetts as well as returning sophomores, course selection is usually an exciting time, except when it comes time to select mathematics classes. For most students here, once they satisfy the R1 and R2 math course requirements they simply refuse to touch the subject again unless absolutely necessary. Besides, who needs anything more than adding, subtracting, dividing, multiplying and percentages, right?

As someone who is expected to take more than the simple two mathematics courses required to satisfy the general education requirements, I’ve come to anticipate the answer when I tell others that I’m required to take high-level math: “Oh really? Wow that sucks, I’m sorry.”

Wait, what? Sorry? For what? Mathematics, although often difficult, is a beautiful and intricate subject that is treated as the red headed stepchild of the academic world. People shy away from this wonderful subject because they hate it.

But why do students hate this amazing subject? The answer is honestly quite simple: Imagine if you were required to take a music class, as many of us probably were, and now imagine for the entirety of the school year, the only thing you did in this music class was play “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder. Over and over and over again. But your teacher never let you listen to Beethoven or Bach or Chopin or any of the musical geniuses that make the subject incredible.

Now imagine you’ve graduated college and are reminiscing about school with your old buddies, and one of them mentions that same music course. You’d probably say, “Oh my gosh, I hated music in school. It was so boring.” However, this is inaccurate. Instead of saying you hate music, you’re really saying that you hate playing the recorder or to a larger extent playing “Hot Cross Buns.”

The same is true for math. In school, teachers pound the subject into children’s heads, forcing them to solve problems, add fractions, memorize trigonometric identities and decipher what seem like problems that have nothing to do with real life.

Now, it is true that sometimes you just have to do things in every subject that aren’t fun. For instance, I doubt any student is jumping out of their seat when it comes time to memorize the multiplication table, but it is virtually impossible to go through life without it. Just like in piano lessons in which you have to practice for hours on the basics, so too do you have to practice for hours on mathematics for you to be able to create something wonderful. If you can get through those initial piano lessons, which may be incredibly painful, you can create beautiful music.

We teach kids in English classes to write proper sentences and use good grammar, but we also let them read Shakespeare, Whitman and Dickinson. In science courses we teach them to do problems, yes, but they also learn who Watson and Crick, Einstein, Newton, Madame Curie and Stephen Hawking are and what they contributed to the field.

But ask almost any student who Euler is, how about Gauss or Leibnitz? Even worse, they don’t even know about amazing, mind blowing mathematical concepts like Cantor’s different types of infinity, the Riemann Hypothesis, Poincaré conjecture, or Fermat’s Last Theorem. All of these, and many more, are central to what makes math so fun – yes, I used the word fun and math in the same sentence – and crucial to helping appreciate math as the wonderful subject that it is.

In order to generate more interest in math, students need to see it as a human subject, not an arbitrary group of numbers that were created out of nowhere. The best way to do this is simple: have experienced and knowledgeable teachers. Anything that can generate interest in future generations to love and appreciate everything that this incredible subject can do, and maybe, just maybe, students won’t groan every time they have to take a derivative or solve for “x.”

Jeffery Ayers is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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  • J

    JoeFeb 25, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    @Schlomo: Alphabets were invented by the Phonecians 5000 years ago. Therefore the best literature in the world will now be in Hebrew. Obviously.

  • S

    Schlomo SilverbergFeb 23, 2016 at 2:09 am

    Mathematics was invented by the Hebrews 4700 years ago. Thus the best mathematicians will always be descended of the tribe of Israel.