I recoiled from maths as a child, but came to love its beauty—as did prisoners in one of America’s toughest jailsby David McConnell / February 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
A history teacher of mine used to tell his pupils that he was teaching us scepticism—a habit of thought—rather than information. A wiry, brusque New Englander, he had us pore over first-person accounts of the first shot fired in the American revolutionary war. We concluded that this original “shot heard round the world” came neither from English nor American forces, but was likely fired by a farmer, an anonymous onlooker from the environs of Concord, Massachusetts. It was a pleasingly uncertain solution.
Years later, the same teacher took advantage of a Saturnalian program at our school. Teachers were invited to attend classes with their students, 60-year-olds at desks next to 14-year-olds. My old teacher put aside any scepticism about the capabilities of age. He chose to study algebra, but sadly, by all accounts, barely passed.
Maths poses difficulties. Like nature, its starkness is its beauty. There’s little room for eyewitness testimony, seasoned judgment, a sceptical eye or transcendental rhetoric. With maths, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t spare a teacher’s dignity by commenting, “What an interesting conclusion!”
I had strong anti-mathematical and sentimental leanings as a child. Maths seemed to reduce pretty things like the moon and roses to ugly things like orbital periods and Mendelian tables. It took a while to recognise the ignorance of those judgements. As an adult I came to love mathematics and studied with great pleasure but little talent. A friend gave me Rózsa Péter’s wonderful Playing with Infinity. Written in 1943, the book is still the most successful overview of maths for the not-so-mathematically-gifted. I’ve sent a copy to a man on California’s death row at San Quentin. He later wrote to me, “I do like this book. I’ve learned more than I thought I would. I realise I’ve been doing stuff the hard way when there is a much easier method. Thanks a lot, American public education!”