Words matter. They indelibly colour our perceptions.
Take the overdue revival of debate about the value of memorizing addition, subtraction and multiplication tables in school curriculums. The problem lies in the use of the word “math.”
For reasons not clear to me, simple arithmetic – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division – has come to be called math. It’s cursed a couple of generations of otherwise intelligent, creative people with an ungrounded and unnecessary fear of numbers.
In his classic 1946 essay Politics And The English Language, George Orwell decried his contemporaries’ “lack of precision” in their use of words (not to mention their reliance on outdated metaphors and bland euphemisms). The situation has not improved.
We can’t blame Twitter, with its admirable and disciplined brevity. Common use of the one-syllable, four-letter “math” for mathematics predates not only the advent of social media, but for all intents and purposes, the Internet itself. Perhaps the misnomer comes from an understandable disinclination to use polysyllabic vocabulary. After all, Orwell did admonish us to “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
Actual “math” is difficult for many. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the abstract science of number, quantity and space.” It’s not arithmetic.
The distaste for true math often begins in high school. Geometry is not so difficult. Algebra and trigonometry are harder. And many of us are thrown under the bus of calculus, never to walk again among mathematicians.
That is the point where people begin to say they “can’t do math.”
When children hear their parents and teachers trash-talking “math,” meaning anything to do with numbers, those adults are inadvertently contributing to a dangerous dumbing-down. We need facility with numbers, without having to refer to a calculator or an app.
Some foresee mental faculties we don’t use succumbing to atrophy, becoming vestigial, like the appendix. Columbia professor Tim Wu has suggested, in two recent New Yorker pieces, that unused mental faculties will eventually disappear through a process of “biological atrophy.”
But if you can’t do simple arithmetic in your head, how do you know if you’re getting short-changed at the store? How do you know whether the politicians debating your next tax bill make sense – and how do they know whether their aides’ figures add up? These are important things to be able to do on the fly, but they don’t require mathematics. Arithmetic suffices.
Around the walls of my grade-school classroom was a wooden picture rail, from which hung posters or student art. Above it were construction-paper cutouts with arithmetic exercises: 3+3=, 7x11= and so on. Whenever our attention wandered, Miss Cline would take her wooden pointer and stride the room, aiming its tip at the questions and calling on us at random. Woe betide those who couldn’t answer – they would spend the next several evenings at home memorizing.
Memorization, drills. They sound like something from the 19th century, and in fact they are. But recent research using functional magnetic resonance imaging shows that brains change as subjects memorize the solutions to numerical problems, getting quicker with practice.
So get out those addition, subtraction and multiplication tables. Memorize them, if you were deprived of that brain exercise in grade school. And teach a child. It will improve your mental agility, and it’s not math.
Peter H. Martyn teaches journalism at Humber College and the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto.
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