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Death By Numbers

Philip Terzian, innumerate

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Rooting around in a bookstore not long ago, I stumbled upon a second edition of Functions of a Complex Variable (1917) by the Scottish mathematician Thomas MacRobert. Immediately I felt a chill, a sense of doom and foreboding, I had not experienced since youth. This was a dread mathematics text with which I had once wrestled, with limited success.  

Chris Gall

Chris Gall

On a whim I bought it, transported it home, and proceeded to examine its introductory pages. As I expected, the text and mathematical symbols were almost wholly incomprehensible, and whatever knowledge (if that is the word for it) I may have once possessed—of differential equations and the functions of complex numbers, of inverse tangents and infinite products—was truly dead and gone.

Which was hardly a surprise. What did surprise me, however, was that I was willing to peruse its distasteful pages without ultimately depositing the volume in the fireplace. For if any one thing blighted my early education, and life, it was the scourge of mathematics. 

I am now hurtling toward the middle of my seventh decade, and, as I like to point out, have never used anything beyond simple arithmetic in life: addition, subtraction, long division a few times a year, the mental calculation of percentages in restaurants. I have never boarded a train in Washington and headed west at a certain speed in order to discover where my friend, on an eastbound train from Los Angeles, might meet me in the Midwest. On the three or four occasions when I have been obliged to install floor tiles, I have been comforted to know that there are highly competent people who will do it for a fee. 

For whatever reason, and I suspect the explanation is neurological, mathematics is an unfathomable mystery to me. Its abstractions make no sense, its leaps of logic and deduction are inscrutable; its higher terminology might as well be Sanskrit. Numbers, indeed, are capricious in my experience: I have an autodidact memory for dates, but cannot remember a telephone number for more than a few seconds. 

In a just world, of course, this mental aberration would be purely incidental; but we live in an unjust world. I never for a moment contemplated a career in engineering, or chemistry, or architecture; and yet my entire tenure as a student and undergraduate—all 16 years—was thoroughly, sometimes catastrophically, spoiled by the pedagogical infatuation with math. I always note, with despair, that proposals for education “reform” invariably feature more mathematics than before—and thank whatever gods may be that, at this point and at long last, it doesn’t apply to me.

In early childhood, I should say, I was competent in arithmetic, for what it’s worth. But when I arrived in middle school (1961) I was subject to something called the University of Maryland Mathematics Project (UMMaP)—an unholy juxtaposition of math and computer jargon—which utterly, and decisively, defeated me. And since this was the “Mad Men” era, failure to master UMMaP was seen not as a mental quirk but a moral failing, a sign of delinquency or deep stupidity. 

The theoretical premise of UMMaP was not to arrive at an answer but to demonstrate that the answer had been reached by an approved method. Well, I am a self-taught draughtsman, and much prefer to play the piano by ear. This was exactly the opposite of the way my mind works, and induced in my teachers not pity or even amusement but bewilderment, impatience, sometimes rage. Surely the low point of my middle-school incarceration was when I was summoned to stand facing the class while my teacher read aloud the unconventional means by which I had solved an equation—at the end of which he hurled an epithet in my direction, balled up the paper, and threw it into the wastebasket.

 I am reminded of Mr. Benedik whenever the teaching “profession” is romanticized. But the fun didn’t stop there: When, late in my high school career, my Quaker prep school tossed me onto the pavement (“not college material”) it was largely because of mathematical ineptitude. Which explains, I suppose, why I do remember fondly the late Prof. Francisco Migliore of Villanova, who, despite a semicomical Italian accent (“square” was rendered as “squaw”), guided me through calculus and complex variables, enabling me to master just enough to pass exams—and join the rarefied ranks of Bachelors of Arts.

All of which is now utterly forgotten, except the pain, which is not. Example: I was once offered, and accepted, a plum job at the Providence Journal; but of course, if I had known that Providence is home to the American Mathematical Society, I would have turned it down flat. 

 

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