Some thoughts on the stigma associated with mathematics

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

In this article, Nishant Chandgotia shares his personal thoughts on the stigma around mathematics.

Mathematics: What it means to a person depends on how it is used. For a daily earner it might be elementary arithmetic, for a gambler it might relate to probabilities and counting, for an engineer it may relate to calculus and differential equations and to a social scientist it might mean statistical analysis. Mathematics means different things to different people.

As someone vying to become a professional mathematician, I have been approached by several people with diverse queries that range from the spread of the coronavirus, the mathematics of auctioning, to the geometrical analysis of medical data. I was not very helpful, but it was fun to see the number of ways in which mathematics can be applied. Having seen all of this, I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that mathematical training in some form is an absolute necessity for most modern professions. Yet, more often than not, most people believe it is too difficult.

If you were to ever speak to a mathematician, you will get to know that this comic is not exactly an exaggeration. There is a significant mismatch between the need for training in mathematics,  and how much it is disliked. My non-math friends tell me that they didn’t have ‘good enough teachers’. My math friends complain that the school curriculum is boring and does not portray the true nature of the subject. Others complain that the subject is extremely difficult. I feel that all of these statements might be true. However, none in particular are responsible for the stigma associated with this subject. Let me explain.

I will start with a rather controversial stand. Mathematics is hard. Depending on your proclivity and “natural” abilities you might have a knack for mathematics or not, you might be attracted towards mathematical questions or not. On the other hand, what isn’t hard? Isn’t playing an instrument hard? Ask professional musicians how many hours of practicing they put in. Irrespective of the number of hours, , I don’t think most musicians have ever heard statements like “Oh! Music is so hard”, “I hate music” or “I sucked at the music class!” Why is there such a disparity? Everyone (I hope) recognizes the effort and struggles of being a professional musician. But there is hardly such a visceral reaction to the subject. Why is that?

I feel that, unlike mathematics, having musical abilities is not considered necessary by most in the world. While I do not agree with that perspective, for most people education is a means to employment and to draw employment from music is a difficult task. As a consequence, music (unlike mathematics) isn’t force fed to the entire population in a standardised curriculum, so the aversion towards mathematics isn’t particularly surprising.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

I think that the aversion towards the subject needs to be dealt with in a personalised manner – there is a need for a more individualistic approach to education. For my nephew (who was terrified by mathematics) the solution was to go back to basic arithmetic. These skills were easy to master and gradually, as he gained confidence, he could handle many other things which he didn’t earlier think were within his reach. I remember, as a tutor at my alma mater, the University of British Columbia, I often came across students who had trouble with mathematics and requested my help. It always helped to create a bridge from the familiar (what they liked and knew), to the unfamiliar (concepts they felt that they did not like or understand). Creating such a bridge is not always simple. For instance, for a student interested in economics and finance, there are many different avenues to motivate mathematics: Consider the nature of fluctuations of the stock market, the logistics of trade or the calculation of insurance premium. In all of these cases, mathematics plays an important role.  However for a student interested in music the teacher has to be more creative. Nevertheless, the mathematics of music is rich – whether it be design of the musical instruments or the intricacies of rhythm patterns. Mathematics can help understand a lot of things. One has to look!

The problem with personalised education is that we do not have such resources at our disposal. Nevertheless, some steps can be taken in this direction. For instance, instead of standardised books which are to be used across the country, states or regions should have their own books with examples relevant to their daily lives (but with the same mathematical content) and in the local language. Such an approach could mitigate some of the aversion towards mathematics. Some of these suggestions are already present in the recently published New Educational Policy (NEP) (Section 4.11 onwards) by the Government of India.

These are some of my thoughts on the stigma associated with mathematics, which has many dimensions. I, speaking from the shallow depth of my meditations and experience, have certainly missed many important aspects. For this I encourage the reader to conduct their own exploration into reasons why mathematics is stigmatised among friends, family and peers and how their negative perceptions can be turned around.

Nishant Chandgotia

Reader, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR),
BENGALURU, INDIA

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