WILTSE: Adding up what is math and what is not

I, like everyone else, occasionally meet someone who was not a previous acquaintance.
Apr 24, 2014


I never mention what my previous occupation was for reasons that I shall soon make apparent. However, sometimes they will ask what I did before my retirement. I tell them that I was a college professor, but I never reveal what I taught.

Usually, they ask what I taught. I tell them — dreading what will usually come next — that I taught mathematics. The most common response to that is, “Mathematics! That was my worst subject. I hated it.”

I usually ignore that comment and try to change the subject.

The most disgusting comment that I received was, “Eww! Yuck. What a boring subject. How could you stand teaching such a boring subject?” I wanted to hit her.

Luckily, I never saw that person again. But if I should run into her, I will walk the other way.

I must admit that, occasionally, I will run into a person who tells me that it was their favorite subject and he or she couldn’t get enough of it. The negative responses definitely outweigh the positive by at least 2 to 1, probably with even greater odds.

I think I know why I get those negative comments. The problem is, I think, that the person never studied mathematics at all. They confuse mathematics with computation and mathematicians with accountants.

To demonstrate that this is probably true, let me tell you that, when I was playing golf and someone found out that I was a mathematician, they would invariably hand me the scorecard and say that, since I was a mathematician, I should be able to keep score. I would make mistakes, sometimes lots of them. I would be encountered with loud guffaws and comments that I must be a lousy mathematician since I couldn’t keep a golf score.

I accepted the fact that I am a lousy arithmetician and the person I was playing with was ignorant about mathematics.

Where does the problems stem from? My theory is that, somewhere between the first and sixth grade, he or she had a teacher who hated mathematics and instilled this hatred in his or her students. That teacher either ignored the math lessons or merely gave the students tedious drills, or passed the students on with insufficient knowledge of the subject.

Everyone knows that mathematics is hierarchical in nature, and that if you don’t understand today’s lesson, you surely will not understand tomorrow’s.

Do you remember “new math”? It was an experiment to teach logic to elementary students. It failed miserably. Elementary students were just not ready for it; it was too abstract for them, for they were still struggling to master arithmetic, a necessity for all advanced mathematics. Logic can come later.

Modern elementary mathematics combines the learning of arithmetic and logic through cleverly designed problems or exercises, and also through the use of clever devices as well as computers.

Teachers that do not like math should not be teaching. College professors are encouraged to take a sabbatical every seven years so that they can go to other universities to learn the latest ideas occurring in their own fields; in other words, to keep up with the latest trends.

The same should be true for all teachers. Workshops and seminars are not enough. Yes, mathematics is not stagnant and is ever-changing.

If you are over 30, the math that is taught today is vastly different than the math you were taught. The use of computers made sure of that.

The advancement of computers in the next 30 years is mind-boggling, yet one should be able to show that the results obtained from computers is correct. Hence, the necessity of learning arithmetic and at least elementary algebra. It should always remain so, and even become more important in the future.

I think the problem is minimal here in Grand Haven, since we have the best schools in the state. But I think the problem does exist, and I don’t know what to do about it nor have any ideas how to fix it. All I’m doing is blowing wind and venting frustration.

Maybe I’ll give someone who is in a position of power the suggestion that something is wrong in our society.

— By Ralph Wiltse, Tribune community columnist



Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Profane, obscene, sexual or derogatory language.

Barry Soetoro

Hahaha. I was wondering how long that would last!


Interesting article, Ralph. Thanks. We are fortunate to have such wonderful teachers here in Grand Haven; I have four boys, and math is liked by all of them.


Great column! The opportunities provided for visualization by use of technology are amazing. I don't think I would have had a chance at understanding calculus if it were not for my trusty TI graphing calculator.
Math underlies all! Business, science, life!
Great teachers are those that love to teach! No matter the subject!


I would just enjoy meeting a mathematician sitting on the board walk on a boring summer day. My first question would about those ancient Egyptian pyramids. There are shows, books and math people of various backgrounds showing all those complex equations stuffed into the dimensions of the pyramids. The speed of the moon around the Earth. The diameter of Earth's orbit around the Sun. The mass of the Earth when one dimension is increased to 10x whatever that is. Id ask him what is the mathematical probability that Ancient Egypt had electronic computers better than what we have today? I'm not buying ancient history class in high school of people with chicken bones drawing in the sand. I just am not buying that those ancient peoples did mathematics like that - there is not enough lifetimes to come up with calculations they made.


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