Even English majors need math

I was an English major, and I have a confession to make:

I kind of like math.

It's like a set of puzzles that have the potential to help you solve real-life problems, however basic; not 2+2=4 kind of basic, or 9x12 kind of basic, but more like, y=1000x+100 to reflect how much money (y) will be in my bank account, that has a starting balance of $100, after x number of months, when I make $1000 a month.

Some people would rather just punch that equation into a search engine to get the answer, but I want to know how to do the thing, and I believe there's value in that mentality for everyone.

What I really want to say, though, is that no adult should be so ignorant that they confuse math with Arabic, and assume that anyone of non-white complexion writing in Arabic is a terrorist.

Remember that story, from May 2016? Of the lady that informed a flight attendant that she thought the man seated next to her was a terrorist because he was "scribbling" in a "strange language" and didn't really want to talk to her? I've linked to the story and an opinion column about the incident above, citing two different news sources. Click through if you need a refresher.

Guido Menzio, Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania.

There are two lessons here: Be able to recognize math, and to recognize bias.

The two articles I provided do not provide any perspective from the woman who allegedly made this crazy mistake, and there's a good chance no one heard from her because she was embarrassed. But any time someone is represented by someone other than themselves, especially by the media — I know, I was/am a journalist — we ought to take it with at least a grain of salt, and I hope I can help my students will recognize this as well.

So, we don't have her side of the story. It's also interesting to note that there seems to be more information in the opinion piece; is there some fabrication going on here, or is the writer just drawing what she perceives are logical conclusions? It is labeled an opinion piece (albeit not very obviously), so we already know to take it with that grain of salt I mentioned.

Or do we?

I wonder/fear that an increasing number of young people — and I was once included in this group, until I became a reporter — have not been taught to properly vet "news" sources or consider that, just because it showed up in a newspaper doesn't actually mean it's true. And when a correction is run, how many people who read the original story also read this correction?

I'm getting further down the rabbit hole of bias than I originally meant to (and yes I was going to end a sentence with a preposition, thank you).

Math can provide students with methods of working through problems that apply to situations outside the "purely" numerical realm — it usually requires that students write out the solution process, step-by-step, and draw logical conclusions based on specified principles. I really, really wish more students understood how valuable math can be, beyond simply not making a fool of oneself by being able to recognize math when they see it, even if they don't understand it. To me, students who give up on math because they think they're "bad" at it are feeding themselves excuses that foster negative self-image and cause the student to sell themselves short. And, if they become parents, they're likely to pass on the mentality to their children that difficulty can be ignored.

Of course, as rigid as I understand the state (and national) math standards to be — asking public school teachers to go through lessons at a certain pace — it sounds like many students are being deprived of the time they need to either a) fully understand the material, b) understand the value of math education, or c) both.

If there are any students reading this who think Algebra or Calculus is beyond them, please, I implore you — don't give up. Don't dismiss it as useless. Make it relevant.

And step back to think for a minute before making judgments that could alter the course of someone's life — it takes less than you think to do permanent damage.


  1. Well said, Caitlin! I agree, we should all work together against those pervasive notions that math is too hard and that it should be avoided. It's clearly more than deleterious to being functional members of society, it's actually dangerous! :-o


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