Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Who Needs Math?

These days I find myself wondering how I got to be 52 and can't do the easiest of math problems (or even, it seems recall a number written on page for more than a minute), but it isn't really a mystery, given my background. It is, however, nothing to be proud of and something I'd really like to change about myself.

My 'disability' is not something I cannot overcome, but it does have very deep roots. From the first through the sixth grades of my primary schooling, I attended the St. John's Episcopal Day School in Abilene. Although my parents were ostensibly Jewish, they were committed to the idea that a good education was more important than religious practice, so I drew the natural conclusion that both of the ideologies to which I was being exposed, though fascinating for a young mind inclined toward poetry and philosophy rather than math and science were nonetheless somehow suspect.

I could and did ponder the philosophical questions raised by the reading of the Parables in Wednesday morning chapel and I could and did consider similar questions on Friday evenings in the synagogue when hearing readings from the Torah about the power of Moses's ability to reason with the King of Egypt, but in the classroom on Monday morning, I really could not see why a+b should =c, always and forever. Despite knowing the logic of the equation is sound, I still cannot 'see' it in the same way that I can 'see' meaning in words.

I can recall the scores on my first 'achievement' test, which the schoolm adminstered to all pupils in all grades once a year because my parents, particularly Lynda, made a very big deal of it, and once the first results were in, they served as the measures of my intellect as well as my personality for them and me.

So, scoring a 99 on the verbal portion of the test was natural enough; expected of an articulate child growing up in a bookstore. The 33 that I scored on the math portion of the test, however, evoked a different response from my parents, more nuanced and less forgiving than the pride they showed for my verbal 'success'.

Nuanced it was because, while they expected me to to do better than that on subsequent exams, and, to that end, my parents alternately focused on pushing me to do better in math by giving me books (Trachtenberg), and making me feel resigned to the inevitability of being one of those people who are just no good at arithmetic.

Now, from the former response, I got the idea that math could be both taught and learned, but the latter response resonated more with me, and I simply became convinced that I just couldn't do it. Ever. Now, to overcome a literal lifetime of self-fulfilling agonies endured in math classes (ending, not so mercifully with a C- Algebra II), I realize that I have to reform my negative response to mathematics if I am ever to advance my knowledge and understanding of physics.

I can, and do read about physics in popular books, and from this I derive great pleasure from the process of learning the basics, but of course I am immediately swamped by even the most elementary math, and have little hope that I will ever master enough of it to get to chapter two with a coherent understanding of the underlying mathematical principles.

So, whether I have come to this point because I was genetically predisposed to forever flunking math, or because I simply made of this defect a self-fulfilling handicap, I do not have, at this point in my life, the necessary tools or even the underlying self-confidence I need to advance very far. This does not deter me, however, in my pursuit of exceedingly challenging and difficult thoughts; it has me thinking that I perhaps should begin to explore philosophy. This with the hope that through words, however more difficult it may make the task of understanding, I may at least be able to approach the massive questions that have so long dominated my thoughts.

At long last I am able to answer a close friend's question about the "Top Five Things I Think About" by saying that although I do not yet know what the other two might be, I am always thinking about 1) the Future, 2) the Past, and, more infrequently because of the challenge it poses to my brain, 3) the Present.

So, big questions though these may indeed be, given my natural inclination toward intellectual arrogance and the easy self-aggrandizement of my abilities, I still have the belief that I can and will contribute to the progression of human knowledge, if not in physics, then in thought itself.

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