For Math’s Sake…

I consistently find that it’s easier to generate excitement for math when it’s called something else.  (A game, for example, even when it shamelessly involves multiplication, is drastically better received when it’s called a game than when it’s called math.)  I’m beginning to think that it would be wise if we retired the word math for awhile.  It’s come to embody, represent, and inspire such dread, fear, loathing, and hostility (often compounding over the course of generations) that I think it deserves a break.  And many of us deserve a break from it.

This is not at all to say that we should stop doing the things we’ve come to refer to as math.  Just that we could stop using the word.  For now.  Not only does it inspire the less-than-healthy and productive states I mentioned above, our general understanding of what it actually is has been whittled down to something that could only appeal to a very few humans who happen to function in a particular way.  Math, defined broadly, is the kind of stuff anyone could find a home in; not just those who happen to have a proclivity for memorizing columns of numbers, or substituting letters for numbers in some prescribed manner.   There is room in the math I know for artists, builders, designers, extraverts, poets, chefs.  And room for it in all of their various pursuits.  When treated well and generously conceived, math has the ability to invite, inspire, and intrigue.

The earliest mathematicians were a varied lot.  To them math was a playful, welcoming thing.  They’d have been sorry, I’m sure, to hear it spoken of today as it is.  So perhaps we should shelve the word, breathe some life back into the observation, rendering, and capturing of pattern, relationship, quantity, and then invite it back to the party when we can treat it as the spacious entity we deserve to have it be.

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