“I’m bad at math.”

I hear this a lot. You probably do, too. H*ck, you might even say it, some of you ( though, I really hope not). I’ve heard it from countless people, and I have never once observed it to be true. That keeps me asking the same question: “What is the education system doing to people that makes them keep saying this, and (for god’s sake) WHY?”

I think a big part of it is that math is taught bassackwards. I’ve been righteously indignant from the moment I learned that all groups are the same thing. Vector spaces and addition of integers and multiplication of reals and putting square pegs in square holes are all EXACTLY THE SAME. Matrices and polynomials? Might as well be the same sentence in different fonts. I could put shapes in matching holes before I could speak, so why did I have to wade through seemingly disjoint topics in mathematics for 10 years before we brought up D_n? I had the prerequisite knowledge for the dihedral group when I was 4 years old, but I didn’t get to learn about it until I was in my 20′s. And that’s not okay.

I want to figure out why the educational system obfuscates mathematical topics to such an unreasonable extent as to teach them as separate topics. I want to figure out why and then I want to stop it forever. No wonder grade school kids struggle with a subject where they’re taught, say, four methods per topic to approach four topics - that’s 16 things to learn about ONE STATEMENT. No wonder that great abstract thinkers like Newton and Einstein and Franklin disliked the earlier years of school and reportedly received poor-to-average grades. Of course students are puzzled when they inherit snippets of mathematical knowledge like parts proffered at auction with no hint as to what the whole machine could do when assembled. And no wonder why they ask statements like, “what will we ever use this for?” I don’t know, kid. I’m not allowed to tell you because the school board believes abstraction will cause a lawsuit. It makes me want to cry.

So, in summation, here’s what I say when someone tells me they’re bad at math: “You’re not bad at math. Your school board is. Your legislators are. And you don’t have to agree with their goddamn opinion because they’re no sort of authority on that topic.”