Most people don’t like math. While this may not be so true of the Bowdoin populace (the population of Searles at any given time should attest to the inaccuracy of “most” in the case of Bowdoin), it is certainly true of the general public. There is a stigma that surrounds mathematics, a perception of math as an esoteric subject only the odd enjoy. Some might have found high school geometry pleasing, others may have enjoyed algebra, and some may say that they at least found calculus interesting, if not enjoyable. However, the vast majority of students can attest to having found at least one math class insufferable. “I hate math” is not an uncommon phrase in a math class.

Why is this? What part of mathematics is so intolerable that it can evoke such wrath, from children and adults alike? 

I believe the flaw lies not with mathematics itself, but in the way it is presented.

Take as juxtaposition an art class: art assignments might range from painting a picture, to sketching an object, molding clay or capturing a photograph.  These tasks are often simple, for the purposes of teaching, just as in math class one starts with the basics: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Unlike in mathematics, there is an unspoken, almost unthought-of assumption and understanding that runs through any art class: that there is more beyond this. 
An artist practices his or her art so that he or she may move on to do better art, knowing full well that others have done this in the past. There is a cultural knowledge of art that, while not deep, is widespread. A child in their third grade art class is aware that art isn’t just making macaroni sculptures and drawing crayon flowers. They have heard of figures like Van Gogh and Picasso, perhaps not specifically of their accomplishments, but at least that they are artists and that they are important.

The same cannot be said for mathematics. Even a well educated individual may be under the impression that math stops at calculus, and even those interested in math— labeled as being gifted in the subject —may be under the impression that professional mathematics is like a competition, where mathematicians pose each other problems to solve, and whoever does so quickest wins. In reality, mathematics is a subject-spanning body of knowledge built up from logic to reveal truths about itself and the world. Modern mathematics comprises an enormous body of work, done by hundreds of thousands of men and women over the course of millennia, and stretching in scope from the simplest properties of numbers and shapes, to the truly abstract objects by which no real world object could ever hope to be modeled. 

Modern math education teaches mathematics as a cut-and-dry way of finding answers to problems that ,to most students, didn’t need answering anyway.  If instead, time was spent introducing children to the great accomplishments of mathematics: from simple to state problems like Fermat’s Last Theorem, to theorems which place limits on our ability to find definitive answers, like Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, to the problems which have yet to be solved, like the Riemann Hypothesis, then they may not have as much reason to hate the subject. If children knew the stories of great mathematicians like Euler, Gauss, Cantor and Galois, perhaps they might realize that there was more to math than saw in the classroom. Perhaps, their curiosity would be sparked, and one day they would go on to solve the great problems they had learned about. Pleasing ‘if’s indeed, but it is difficult to be curious about a world you do not know exists.