Last night, after church choir, I headed into town to visit with Michelle on her last day of vacation this week. I planned for a crazy night and therefore brought the aforementioned ACEE evalutation results with me to read. But there, in the kitchen, Matie [MAE-TEE] — that is her legal, given name — and her friend Molly had already claimed the table for their lending letters. You see, they’re canvassing financial support for the sex shop they hope to open in Albuquerque. Now, before you guys pass judgement — and I know you already have — Matie holds an advanced degree in social development and non-profits or something germane. And she happens to be pretty on top of her stuff. In our now more frequent exchanges, we discovered something bizarre. The general public treat us and our fields in identical ways.
I explained that the world is mathphobic. If I were to go to a bar, say, and someone asked me, “Oh, which school did you go to?” Harvard gets you the first strike. You can approach the question “Yeah, really? [I had an aunt who went there in the 60s, she…] What did you study there?” in a couple different ways. If I don’t want them to talk to me I can say math, but if I feel a little more sociable, I can answer science. Science is vague enough that it might mean biology and therefore be less threatening. Everyone has a biology, few people carry around their math. But you can only dodge the question for so long. No matter when you pitch it, it’s always strike three: math.
Math makes people uncomfortable. And most people have no idea what math is and an even worse conception about what mathematicians actually do. It isn’t easy [for some reason] for people to hear that math is really just like anything else, that anyone can do it, and that they’ve probably never done it themselves. Adding and substracting isn’t math. [It’s almost computer science.] People forget that the content is secondary. It’s the relations that exist within the content that’s important. That’s why when I draft my socially responsible, angry letters a classicist and a sociologist can read them and there’s a pretty good chance that they would’ve written something similiar. [Though I’m sure we’d argue the grammar until the cows come home.] The same style of argumentation you use to write a paper on phonology is the same you use when discussing Engels dialectic approach is the same you use to investigate spin cobordism. The words look different. The language looks different. But the processes that govern them all, they’re the same. [Probably not, but close enough.]
But to overcome the discomfort I and my math present, people always share with me these impromptu anecdotes to justify or demonstrate or something, I’m not especially sure, maybe just to connect however awkward a connection it may be with math and therefore with me. “I was really good at math in high school, until calculus;” or “it’s not my thing. I can’t even add at the grocery store;” or, “I had this teacher and he was really good at explaining math. I really wish I stuck with it.”
It turns out that Matie gets the same response:
- Sex [Math] makes people uncomfortable.
- Most people are uneducated about sex [math] and get the issue confused, perhaps, to the detriment of themselves and those who do sex [math].
- People offer unsolicitated, personal disclosures about sex [math] to those who profess to know anything about the subject.
We need to do something about the current state of affairs, even if it does make for some hilarious chit-chat.
“No, sir, I don’t want to know about what you do with your wife or your ‘really great’ high school math teacher.”