When a prodigy realises, “I don’t even enjoy maths. Isn’t that stupid?”

The disillusionment of school mathematics

The film x+y (released as A Brilliant Young Mind in the US — perhaps the symbols were too much?) exposes a miserable side of mathematics. The spotlight is on the film’s protagonist, Nathan, an autistic maths prodigy competing for a place in the International Math Olympiad (the Olympics of high school mathematics). Nathan has to contend with devilish maths problems to make the cut. But his biggest battle is reserved for an unexpected love affair with a female competitor, which forces Nathan to confront a problem with no exact solution: his emotions. This isn’t the miserable part.

Where Nathan is the movie’s ultimate victor, its tragic victim is Luke, who narrowly misses out on the competition. For most of the film, Luke is portrayed as a cock-assured, arrogant, eccentric genius — think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Having just learned his fate, Luke resorts to self-harming; not for the first time, apparently. When Nathan interrupts, a brief but devastating dialogue ensues in which Luke relays how his parents assured him his own diagnosis made him unique:

Luke: No one wants to be ordinary, they said. It’s alright being weird. As long as you’re gifted. But if you’re not gifted then that just leaves weird, doesn’t it?

Nathan: But you are gifted, Luke.

Luke: I don’t even enjoy it, maths. Isn’t that stupid? What’s the point?

Luke is striving for perfection in a world that punishes the slightest imperfection. His circumstances may be extreme, but Luke speaks for the millions of disillusioned students who have been cruelly led down the garden path by school mathematics.

Luke: Striving for perfection in a world that punishes the slightest imperfection

School maths is engineered as a relentless competition, where students are ranked and judged according to the narrowest measures of aptitude. The spoils go to those who can mercilessly commit facts and procedures to memory (irrespective, and often at the expense, of understanding), and recall them in the arbitrary confines of exams.

But the game is rigged, even for students who excel in this format. They develop dubious identities as ‘gifted and talented’ mathematicians, which they understand as the ability to solve problems at pace and will. These students are just like Luke, building mountainfuls of confidence as they solve arcane problems, until reality hits home that their talents are neither unique, nor even relevant, to the outside world. It is then that they realise their enjoyment of mathematics was superficial, and that the promised riches of school maths was mere hype.

Only the hardened few can persevere through the binary judgements of school maths. Most students dispense with whatever mathematical identities they have, shunning mathematics for life as a subject meant for other people. Their departure from mathematics is marked with bitterness and resentment; who could blame them?

The joy of mathematics lies outside cheap competition that brutalises the subject into a performance act. We should be fostering inclusive learning experiences that connect all students to the intrinsic power and beauty of mathematics. The experiences must allow for — must design for — failure. Luke was not prepared for his mathematical fall from grace. Students need constant reassurance that the path to mathematical enlightenment is marked with repeated setbacks; a notion lost in the cut-throat madness of competition. When we broaden our definition of success beyond exam scores and IMO medals, failure need not be a feared outcome.

In the climactic scene of x+y, Nathan abandons the Olympiad competition, choosing instead to solve his emotional problems. It is a strangely triumphant end to a film with love and emotion at its core. How poignant then that the love affair requires a deliberate separation from mathematics. Imagine a version of school maths that has love and emotion woven in, which rewards all who embrace it without the hype or threat of failure. Gosh, I’d love to see the movie version of that.