Math is not important. It's fun!

A Mathematician’s Lament is this poignant essay 1 from a few years ago that I just discovered. I highly recommend you go read it now, because I’m going to give spoilers.

In the introduction, the author makes the case that mathematics is a misunderstood art form, where the medium is imaginary objects (such as numbers and the patterns they form), instead of paint or marble. It’s not science, since it doesn’t try to understand reality, bur rather made-up things, like triangles and curves. It’s not engineering, since the focus is not on making something useful. Any practical benefit that arises from doing math is just an added bonus.

With this mindset, the author then goes on to decry, in a rather entertaining way, the horrendous state of math education. 2 In short, the system is focused on all the wrong things (notations, definitions, formalisms) and none of the right things (natural curiosity, intuition, elegance, context).

So, while sir Ken Robinson was completely right when he said that schools kill creativity, in the case of math, the education system did such a good job, for such a long time, that the common wisdom is that there isn’t any creativity in mathematics to begin with. Or that you have to be a genius to enjoy doing math.

Before reading this essay, I had this vague guilt for completely losing interest in math in high school (and, consequently, barely making it through the math courses in college). I think I can relax about it now. I would still like to learn, but not because “I might need it someday” and not even because it might make me a better programmer. Just because it might be fun.

  1. It seems it was later expanded into a short book.

  2. The author is from the USA, but I had an essentially identical experience as a student in Romania, so I’m going to assume that it’s pretty much the same everywhere.

comments powered by Disqus