Fear of Math

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Image: CSUN

From 8th grade to 11th grade, I was taught mathematics by a teacher who was a tyrant. A brilliant man who left a lucrative engineering career to teach high school, he clearly was dedicated to teaching the subject. But his dedication took the form of catering to the brightest students in the class and mocking the rest. Since I was not among the brightest students, I was often the object of his ridicule. I was deeply interested in music by this point and sometimes came in late for class because I was held up in music practice; when this happened he used to mercilessly taunt me in front of everyone else and tell me that I should probably drop out of school and start a band. Sometimes he used to refuse me entry to the class. At an age where peer validation means much, this was devastating. Hatred of the man led to hatred of math and I turned into a rebel, not caring about the subject. I liked the abstract aspects of math but just wouldn’t do the problems, seeing it as an act of rebellion

The old joke goes that the world can be divided into three kinds of people – those who can count and those who can’t. Like many jokes this one has a shred of truth in it because math does seem to impose binary divisions on us. Most of us put up with it because it’s useful to us to various extents in our professions, be it accounting, biology or economics. Some of us love it. A select few are blessed with great natural ability and passion for the subject. The rest of us are not just bad at but are often proud of our mathematical deficiency. How often have we come across people or caught ourselves joking that we were always “bad at math”? The result of this attitude – as indicated by any reading of the pandemic news these days for instance – is that we live in a largely mathematically illiterate society which is both bad at and distasteful of numbers and statistics. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Read more »