Mathematics Phobia


A section of teachers and guardians are responsible for the widespread phobia against mathematics. Instead of making it unnecessarily complicated, explaining it with clarity and ease would do a world of good to young learners. Speaking on the occasion of National Mathematics Day at a high school in Nagaon, mathematician and educationist Dr Tarakeshwar Chaudhury spoke of how a mind without fear can appreciate the inner logic of mathematics and revel in its joys. It is a timely call considering the high attrition rates in State schools due to students coming to grief because of mathematics. The pedagogical issues involved in writing good textbooks and effectively teaching math in the classroom is for teachers and education planners to sort out. But the more problematic aspect is the public perception that mathematics is a hard subject, its formulae and equations seemingly dry and almost inhuman. If you have a peculiar knack for it, you will get the answer right and score full marks; if not, you will score zero — so goes the popular notion. Several myths are superimposed on this “all or nothing” scenario — that mathematical ability is inborn like it was with Srinivasa Ramanujan (whose birth anniversary on December 22 is celebrated as National Mathematics Day); this ability is passed genetically within families (like the famous Bernoullis of Switzerland); boys do better mathematically than girls because of the way their brains are wired; mathematics is needed in esoteric fields that have no bearing on day-day-day lives of common people. But biographical studies show there is no such thing as a ‘mathematical tribe’; mathematicians are as different from each other as different can be, while many have been colourful personalities. An enigma to Western mathematicians to this day, Ramanujan attributed his intuitive genius to goddess Namagiri, his family deity; Carl Gauss, revered as the Prince of Mathematicians, came from a family of illiterate labourers; Rene Descartes was as much a mathematician as a philosopher, a gentleman soldier with a delicate constitution; Kurt Godel — who proved that no mathematical system can be fully complete and consistent, because in any such system, there are statements that cannot be proved true or false — starving himself to death because of his paranoid fear about germs. As for girls, they can take inspiration from the late Maryam Mirzakhani of Iran, the first woman mathematician to be honoured with the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize equivalent in mathematics. While Nature herself is believed to be constructed mathematically, the question is often asked whether mathematics is ‘out there in the Universe’ or in the human mind itself. A vast field of research has been opened about how human cognitive abilities are underpinned by innate understanding of spatial relations and mathematical symbols, how ‘conceptual mapping’ makes it possible to think about abstract or unfamiliar things, how even simple organisms or digital entities thrive in a rules-based environment. Common people use mathematics all the while — estimating relative heights and distances, evaluating risk, noticing patterns, following scales and harmonies in music, or even in crossing a road with all sorts of vehicles moving at different speeds. This should put in perspective the thrust of educationists on ‘numeracy’ and ‘computeracy’ as much as literacy for school children. Mathematical skills can be learned, its concepts linked to concrete contexts. Neither is it about brute memorisation and number crunching — the ‘feel’ and intuition associated with mathematics are overlooked in our teaching. The language of mathematics may look intimidating and alien, yet it is ubiquitous in various activities around us, particularly in this digital age. With average human knowledge presently doubling every 13 months and the rate accelerating, clearly, the coming generations will need to take a very positive approach to mathematics. They need all help they can get from education planners, textbook writers, and teachers.