The International Congress of Mathematicians is being held in Hyderabad. I wonder about the delegates. A hall full of brains. Would they all be nerds? The serious, bespectacled types? Or would they have a sense of humour? Just a thought. I have always regarded anyone good at the subject with awe and have the greatest respect for them. It is just that we never had fun loving math teachers at school.
Few have nice memories of their mathematics classes at school. Everyone complains about those who taught them the subject. The teachers are in general short on patience and subsequently rude and short-tempered. Always commenting on how useless the student is, and that there was no hope for them. No extra effort would be made by the teacher to explain the sum to the student. Maths teachers were also rather pompous. They took on the role of the unofficial principal. They would send for the parents at the slightest provocation. Give them a lecture about how useless their ward was and suggest that the parent send their child out for extra tuition classes. To make their job easier.
And I guess parents have a problem too. It did not matter if we ( read me) were never good at the subject, but we always secretly hope our child could score 100% in mathematics. My daughter ( the younger one), I thought was brilliant at the subject. At least till the 8th class. As long as the lazy teacher set the test paper with sums from the text book, she had no problem. This was lost on me initially. I had great hopes of sending her to IIT. Being endowed with a good memory, she knew the answers to each sum in the text book and would work toward getting that answer. But all that changed when the papers were set with sums that did not figure in the book. She heaved a sigh of relief when she did not have to deal with the subject anymore . The elder one after a lot of coaxing, did continue to take the subject well into her graduation. From where she made the switch to statistics.
Of late, I find many send their children to abacus classes. They say it helps. I remember in childhood, all of us at some time or the other had an elementary abacus at home. I think we all learnt basics of addition and subtraction from the equipment. The ones that the children use at the abacus classes now seem more complicated, with more rows of beads.
We still do a lot of mathematics in our head. All the multiplications, divisions, additions of the amount that needs to be given to the vegetable vendor, the dhobi, the maid. Mental mathematics is not given as much importance now as it used to be earlier. Thanks to our dependence on calculators. I remember the time, my father had gone to a store in the US. He bought a couple of items and went to the billing counter and handed the money to the lady at the counter,and told her how much she had to return. This was way before the more sophisticated billing machines appeared at the supermarkets. The lady took out her calculator, punched in the prices, and subtracted it from the money she had received . She saw the same amount that my father had told her. She looked up from the calculator and asked him – ‘You, mathematician?’ It amused him no end.
I wish we had better teachers. We have the best mathematical brains in our country. If we could make teaching positions more attractive in our own schools and universities and have teachers who could explain the subject with a little more patience in a logical sequence, we could have some Nobel Prize winners as well as some happy children and parents. It is also a pity, that those who teach the subject are not in touch with the industry. Most have no clue about the applied aspects of the subject.
I came across a series of articles that appeared in the NYT written by Steven Strogatz a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell Universitya. Like I said, I am not particularly good at the subject , but I read them for the sheer manner of presentation. He has such a lovely style of writing. And introduces humour in a subject that I thought was drab. The articles held my interest even though the mathematical portions were still were beyond me.If you have the time, go through them here.
While it is true that those who are duds at mathematics do well in life in other fields. It is also true that mathematics does teach you to think logically, whether you end up being a mathematician or not. So how does one sum up?