An image problem?

22May08

Recent research suggests that mathematics is an unpopular subject because it has an image problem.

Many students and undergraduates seem to think of mathematicians as old, white, middle-class men who are obsessed with their subject, lack social skills and have no personal life outside maths. The student’s views of maths itself included narrow and inaccurate images that are often limited to numbers and basic arithmetic.

From my university years, I can attest to the existence of mathematicians with no social skills. From undergraduates who spent their entire degree in the library to professors who, terrified of communication with students, delivered their lectures on topology or analysis entirely to the blackboard, it is true that extreme examples exist. Films such as “A Beautiful Mind” and mathematicians such as Grigori Perelman do little to dispel this image.

But of course well-adjusted mathematicians, who play frisbee or drink beer or dabble in stand-up comedy, also exist in large numbers. In the mathematics department I had friends, lecturers and professors who did not conform at all to this stereotype. And it can’t be the case that all senior school maths teachers are crotchety old bags.

I would suggest that the image problem runs deeper – that maths is unpopular because the subject itself is seen as dull. And no wonder, when you consider just what is involved in compulsory school mathematics. Times tables and long division, with the best will in the world, will never be exciting. They are necessary skills, in the same way that reading and writing are. But while it’s hard to find anyone who will admit to illiteracy, many wear their “no head for figures” with pride.

For me, maths was a school subject I found easy, but never interesting. Until one day someone handed me a book by Martin Gardner. I found it hard to believe that this collection of logic puzzles, board games and instructions for intricate paper models bore any relation to the sheets of long multiplication I did every day in school. Of course, at the age of seven or so, an awful lot of the detail was lost on me. But in subsequent years, I revisited that book and others like it. My interest in final-year university topology can be directly traced to the picture of a Mobius strip on the cover of that book.

And that’s what’s missing in school mathematics. Yes, there are people for whom arithmetic will forever present a problem. But not nearly as many as claim that to be the case. Perhaps a little more time spent on the many, varied and interesting aspects of mathematics (without the technical detail, of course) in the years leading up to GCSE would persuade more people to continue their studies of mathematics past the age of sixteen. The persistent narrowing of the curriculum certainly isn’t working.

Learning to read is boring. But with basic skills, a person can work their way up to Shakespeare. Learning arithmetic is boring. But mathematics isn’t.

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