While this meme is (or appears to be) rather innocent, worth a few laughs, it is also a blatant articulation of a troublesome attitude I have noticed amongst a variety of “Arts-Humanities” type people. This attitude roughly follows the subsequent progression:
- I am not good at and do not enjoy math.
- Because of this I want to spend as little time as possible doing anything mathematical.
- This is perfectly acceptable; I have no good use for math.
- Due to the fact that there is no good use for anything mathematical in my (very important) fields of interest/study it is probably a good thing that I am not good at math; in fact, it seems that math is responsible for a lot of bad things.
- Huzza for my poor mathematical skills! Now, where was that important book I was reading…
In essence, I have noticed that what may be a natural self mockery over a lack of math skills has turned into a celebration of this lack of ability. Put bluntly, this is problematic.
Like any other skill set, mathematics is not simply an innate ability; it is rather something that is learned and cultivated. It’s obvious that, again, as in all other skills, some come to math more easily than others, but that does not change the fact that math is something that is first and foremost learned. So, if you are one of those persons who “sucks at math,” you should recognize that this is primarily because of choices you have made; you have chosen not to pursue mathematics. Thus, whether explicitly or by implication, to go around proclaiming how much you “suck at math” is to declare that you do not find math stimulating or useful and are, at the very least, content with this state of affairs, with this chosen ignorance. In the process you minimize and ridicule the discipline of math. Now, I think that celebrating almost any kind of ignorance is unhealthy, and to ridicule a legitimate discipline simply because you don’t like it can’t really be described as anything other than an asshole move. But I have another worry, particularly when we minimize something as important and significant as math. There is no question (I hope) that we distort the world when we reduce it to the mathematical. However, it is equally foolish to deny that there are many different respects in which our world is deeply mathematical; math is inseparably a part of both the “natural” world and the world humans have created. I am convinced that we cannot do philosophy or theology well without paying attention to the world; whenever we are ignorant of different integral aspects of the world it is to our detriment as thinkers. To celebrate this is not just offensive to people who work with and love math; it should be insulting to everyone who values the discipline of rigorous thinking.
Some of you may think that I am reading too deeply into this meme. Isn’t it possible that it is a bit of self-deprecating humour and nothing more? Let’s change a few things around:
Every time I see poetry it looks like this: I have 10 ice cubes and you have 11 apples. How many pancakes will fit onto the roof? Purple because aliens don’t wear hats.
Every time people talk about politics, all I hear is this: If Harper has 10 ice cubes and another politician has 11 apples, how many pancakes will fit into congress? Answer: Purple because aliens don’t wear hats.
Every time somebody tries to tell me that nationalistic militarism is problematic all I hear is this: If foreign countries have 10 guns and you have 11 bombs, how many countries can we rip to shreds? Purple, because I’m an unpatriotic coward.
I could probably go on forever, but this should sufficiently demonstrate that this sort of humour amounts to a dismissal of whichever discipline it addresses and little more. This appears to be part of a wider trend (usually extending from math to the hard sciences and from there to other unimportant matters). It is no secret that the humanities are under attack – I know that I do not care to count the number of times I have defended the legitimacy of the humanities. Too often, however, our response has been to further close ourselves off from other disciplines, happily isolating ourselves in our small, stagnant worlds. But if the human sciences are truly to be the human sciences, then they must attend to the various and interwoven aspects of life.
I know three mathematicians. All have decided to engage broadly in other disciplines. My observation is that this has greatly enriched all aspects of their thinking, mathematical and otherwise. Further, while my own math skills are rather limited, my conversations with these mathematicians, often at the intersection of math and other disciplines, has been tremendously influential and beneficial for my own thinking; they have opened my eyes to new aspects of the world, providing me with more diverse fragments that my thinking can endlessly seek to rearrange.
If you want to make self-deprecating comments about your mathematical inabilities, fine; be aware, though, that even the least offensive of these jokes are growing rather tiresome. If this post has not inspired you to brush up on your math that too is fine; it is not possible to become fluent in every relevant discourse. It is time, however, for us to stop celebrating this ignorance, believing it to be irrelevant to the actually interesting work we intend to do. Our mathematical (and other) deficiencies should be acknowledged with regret, maybe even lament. Maybe then we will be open to new discourses and ideas and discover new interests and passions beyond our narrow worlds. That would certainly make things more interesting.