Friday, May 20, 2011

Just Not Good

Can you evaluate this double integral?  Even if you can’t, isn’t it a smart-looking thing? I have a laundry list’s worth of crackpot ideas, and one of them is that we don’t do enough real, challenging mathematics on a regular basis to appreciate how beautiful and amazing it is.  People think math is arithmetic, which is like saying that novel-writing is spelling. People also think balancing their checkbooks is math, and that’s simple accounting, based on arithmetic. In countries like Romania, there is no gender gap in mathematics achievement because mathematicians are revered. Everyone wants Americans to study more math and do better in math,  and I think the only way we  get there is to change how we as a society view math.  We have to get to the point where everyone thinks math is cool.
Pay the best math teachers like professional athletes. Put problems like the one above next to the Wednesday crossword puzzle in the New York Times. Stop letting adults and teens and children say, “I’m just not good at math.” Dogs are not good at math. People invented math. Everyone can do math.
Before I was a math major in college, I was an English major. I believed I was meant to write fantasy novels for teens about horses and cats and angry apples.  I kept a journal because an aspiring writer is supposed to keep a journal, filling it with drawings and story ideas and names of characters, interesting phrases and words, and page after page of complaints about the imagined injustices heaped upon me by my bad, unlucky life. I wrote short stories, and they were never very long, and bit by bit they got shorter and shorter until I wrote the shortest and best short story I ever wrote: “The drummer died.”
That is the whole of it.
I don’t think I’ve gone a day in my life without at least one inventive thought, yet for all that creativity, I suffered from writer’s block so intense that I even made a writer’s block. All of my ideas seemed boring. Everything serious I tried to do was actually silly or just embarrassing. Stories had no endings, plots never went anywhere. The drummer died.
I changed majors in college, temporarily alleviating the crushing guilt of wanting to do something but not figuring out how to do it.  I got an advanced degree, a job, had a kid, had another, and so on.  I like everything I wrote six years ago and nothing I wrote six minutes ago.  I still struggle with the voice that asks, “Who gives a shit?” Maybe I’m just not good at writing.

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