The bane that is Mathematics

Do we really need all these problems to be happy in life?

Updated - March 05, 2017 12:33 am IST

Published - March 05, 2017 12:32 am IST

Random mathematical formulæ illustrating the field of pure mathematics

Random mathematical formulæ illustrating the field of pure mathematics

Mathematics is the greatest guzzler. It soaks up all your attention and time, as your first child would, so much so the rest of the children are left in the lurch and forced to fend for themselves. If subjects in school had a mind of their own, there would be an open mutiny. How easily the Mathematics teacher raids an Art class or a Physical Training period and takes over the whole class with the impunity of a Genghis Khan simply because the Maths portion has to be completed? Can the drawing teacher likewise bulldoze a Maths class because the umbrella-drawing is unfinished? Or the last step in the s urya namaskar has to be perfected and giving the Maths class a miss, would be perfectly fine? I bet it has never happened. That's where the rub is. All the other subjects have been reduced to nameless and faceless extras with the spotlight on one over-dressed actress, Mathematics!

"How is the teaching in the school?" is a question that surfaces often among parents with school-going children. Though it looks like a general question, it is not. No one worries if History isn’t taught well in school or Hindi doesn’t have a proper instructor. It’s all about Mathematics, if the “concepts” are taught well and the “basics” are strong. If there is a parent-teacher meeting, everyone makes a bee-line for the Maths teacher. Does anyone meet the PT-instructor on that day? The Art teacher.... well, he could swat flies! Or the often quoted...."He is good at Maths and Science, but loses marks in languages! He just can't write ya !" parents gloat over their wards. There is rarely a sense of regret in this admission. It’s as if accomplishment in Math is sufficient and a passport to greater success and other subjects.....well, they can very well fall by the wayside.

When was the last time someone took tuitions in Geography or History because the child was "weak" at it? Think about it!

Mathematics is a glutton, one giant blotting paper. Give it any amount of time and it will soak it all up. And there will still be no closure. No closure because the next problem can be different and can involve some ‘subtle concept’ the child will invariably stumble over. Sometimes the child knows the solution but commits a ‘silly mistake’ and loses out. At other times the child has no clue about the problem and loses out. Either way he is doomed! And then, those helpless haggling sessions with the teacher, as with a grocery vendor, trying to squeeze out that extra mark for the ‘steps’, while the teacher equally resists, as if donating that mark would leave her eternally anaemic!

The basic problem is that Mathematics isn’t easy, at least for most normal people. There are too many rules out there. Each concept depends on other concepts, making it a chicken-and-egg problem. It's an entire minefield: one careless step and it will surely blow up on your face. Signs change when you take the number to the ‘other side’ (the dark side), sometimes it is good to simplify, sometimes it is good to leave it as is, sometimes there are units to be converted, sometimes there are brackets to be removed, sometimes brackets to be added, sometimes you can "cross multiply", sometimes the fractions can be added, sometimes you need the LCM, sometimes you need to add powers, sometimes you have to express y in terms of x, and sometimes you do all the above, and correctly...hallelujah, but...but...you forget to write the ‘units’ for the answer and that’s it! The teacher takes a devilish delight to circle the value — which is correct to a T, scrawls ‘units’ in red and amputates your whole leg! How heartless!

And then, those ‘word problems’, problems where Ram and Shyam are forever exchanging mangoes or pens! “If you don't follow the problem the first time, read it one more time!”: this is the pet advice every Maths teacher mouths. It is the most useless piece of instruction. I mean, I could spend the whole examination reading the same problem, aloud and under my breath, in different accents may be, and still stay just as clueless. It never made more sense, on the second reading or the third, except giving more scope for the mind to drift off to other unwanted trains of thought — wondering whether the mango was an Alphonso or a Banganapalli and whether Ram had a massive stomach-ache after this mega-mango eating binge. And the problems where the LHS has to be proved equal to the RHS, how after 4-fullscapes have been filled, expanding each side, and going nowhere, we finally give-up, write...what the hell... “therefore, LHS is equal to RHS”, and wipe our hands off.

“O, History is so tough! I have to memorise so many dates. How does it matter to me if the Third Battle of Panipat was in 1761 or 1671 or any other blessed date?”

That's the most unfair comment to make. The time we spend on Maths, if we were to give the same time to all other subjects put together, we would master them all...and many times over. That’s how it is! With other subjects, there is closure. There are only three battles at Panipat, it’s not going to change. It was the same when your grandfather read about it, it’s the same now. ‘Nouns’, ‘Verbs’, ‘Prepositions’, ‘Adjectives’ ...they never change, you learn once and you’ve learnt it for life. The rules are few and the process of learning, fairly pleasant.

But Maths, it's the stuff nightmares are made of: the endless hours, the toil, the tears, the frustration, the nervous anxiety bouts, the near-suicidal feeling everyone has undeniably gone through! Maybe, there is a method to the madness, but at the end of the day, it is still madness all right.

This over-obsession with Mathematics (and all its allied incarnations) has a basic unquestioned premise that has taken over our lives: that ‘problem-solving’ is ‘cool’ and the end-all and be-all of our existence. “If humans had no problems to solve, there would be no progress, and humankind will die.” If human beings need to solve problems to be alive, I would suggest they better die! I mean, how unimaginative can this get? The whole purpose of living is to have a sense of fulfilment and find some happiness. I hope there is no debate about this. Think about the last time you were happy. Where was it? Was it when you cracked the Ram and Shyam conundrum? It was at the beach, for heaven's sake, it was at the beach! It was when you strolled on the hills, it was when you held someone's hand!

We don't need to solve any more problems to be happy! Wake up! Go on top of the mountain and scream, “There are no problems at all to solve!” And watch the thrilling happiness pulsate through your veins! It’s exhilarating as the surrounding mountains just join the chorus and shout back: “There are no problems at all to solve!”

gshankar@cisco.com

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