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In defence of mathematics

Analysing the maths stigma and defending the subject's beauty.

Growing up, mathematics gave me an uncomplicated sense of joy. While other kids played Saturday sports, I was at my desk, engrossed in solving problems; I loved that rush when things finally made sense. I took Mathematics Extension 2 in high school, and am completing my Honours in Economics, a maths-heavy major.

Naturally, I was sad to hear that enrolments in HSC mathematics courses have fallen consistently over the last 10 years. This year, 76% of students are taking some level of mathematics, compared to 94% in 2000. 

Part of this decline could be due to maths’ social stigma. For many people, maths seems complicated, difficult, repetitive and driven by rigid rules. “Schools often teach math as a process for getting the right answer,” says Kyne, a drag queen and educator known for her informative TikToks. “Students memorise formulas like y=mx+b without knowing why … leaving them feeling like math is arbitrary and purposefully challenging.” 

Maths can also sometimes seem impractical. “In most disciplines you can … gain a better understanding of a productive skill,” says Nicholas Giannoulis, President of the Sydney University Mathematics Society (SUMS). “If the question isn’t rooted in a real-life situation, it can become abstract and meaningless,” Mei Zheng, SUMS Sponsorship Director, adds.

This might be why popular culture has normalised “being bad at maths”. It’s relatable to claim ineptitude or disinterest in mathematics; a viral TikTok implored viewers to “stop normalising the idea that math makes sense.” There’s also the idea that some people are “maths people”: that you’re either born a mathematician or not, and that if you don’t understand a mathematical concept with ease, then maths isn’t for you. 

It implies mathematics isn’t something you do (and can get better at), but rather, that mathematical ability is something you inherently have. “Someone who doesn’t find numbers enjoyable right off the bat is likely to have [that belief] … reaffirmed by cultural attitudes,” says Giannoulis. Zheng adds that “there still exists prejudice against females excelling in maths.”

I strongly feel that the myth of the “maths person” wrongly suggests that the subject is only for certain people. That all-or-nothing attitude doesn’t exist elsewhere: even if you’re not a natural-born athlete, nobody would think you’re devoid of sporting ability, or that you can’t play social sport. Even if you aren’t a world-class musician, you might still enjoy playing music and getting better after sticking with it.

Kyne agrees that consistent practice fosters confidence. “If I spent every day practicing basketball, I might one day be really good. However, if my practice only involves shooting the ball from the free-throw line, I probably wouldn’t be a great player,” she says. Even though starting from a young age does help, and natural aptitude plays a role, maths, like sports, music or languages, requires some discipline and resilience to enjoy it.

It’s fair that high school maths education can turn people off maths. Many of my friends felt that maths was “like learning a new language”, or felt demoralised when they got the wrong answer. Instead, schools need to approach maths from a problem-solving perspective. Educators like Eddie Woo (a USyd alumnus) and Numberphile are ditching formulas and telling mathematical stories about real-world problems. Schools also need to tackle people’s internalised beliefs about mathematics, encouraging mistakes as part of mastery. It’s hard in a crowded curriculum and results-focused sector, but it’s necessary when “maths concepts build up like a pyramid structure,” as Zheng explains, requiring a “strong foundation”.  USyd has also introduced course prerequisites to incentivise high school maths study.

Mathematicians also need to show others why maths is useful. There are many reasons; from modelling the spread of coronavirus, busting misleading graphs and statistics, doubling a recipe, predicting traffic, calculating whether you’ll be on time, and understanding why certain designs are pleasing, maths permeates our lives in ways we can’t comprehend.

To end, I’d like to challenge the perception that maths is out of reach for non-STEM students. If you study humanities, you analyse evidence, use jargon and construct compelling arguments through logic and critical thinking. Mathematical proofs are the same. The link between maths and philosophy is well-documented, from Aristotle to Descartes and Russell.

If you are artistic, you know how to think laterally and creatively. Contrary to popular belief, progress in mathematics relies on looking at things differently, and being bold enough to challenge assumptions. Solving tough maths problems requires creativity.

As Hardy noted in A Mathematician’s Apology, the beauty of maths is what makes it accessible (look at Islamic art, snowflakes, sunflowers or music). “Essentially, maths is the study of patterns,” says Zheng. “I think everyone can enjoy maths, even if they don’t work with it professionally.”  

“Math-phobia has become so normal that even kids know they aren’t supposed to like math,” says Kyne. “If an adult wants to learn about science, history or art, they can walk into a museum … the masterpieces of math are just as worth looking at.”

For more information on the mathematics community at USyd, or information on further study and careers involving maths, check out the Sydney University Mathematics Society, or contact lecturers and tutors at the School of Mathematics and Statistics.

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