How Algebra Ruins Lives
Anastasia Basil

Mathematician here, who also had issues with math in school for a long time. At the risk of promoting a “no true Scotsman” fallacy, let me suggest that what you were struggling with was not mathematics at all — but rather a pale substitute.

IMO the problem with “school math” is that it bears little to no resemblance to the discipline that I used to hate and suck at, but eventually fell in love with in college once I discovered its true identity. Algebra as it’s currently taught in schools has a lot of issues. Calculus, even more. But neither of these is what I’d call math. What I would call “math” looks a little more like this:

  • Making observations about quantities and patterns through problems that are interesting, both applied problems and those that are just interesting puzzles;
  • Then making statements about what you think is happening in those problems and puzzles — trying to give a clear statement of the universal truth that is underlying what you’re seeing;
  • Then clearly explaining why your observation is right, or else discovering that it’s not right and re-examining your thoughts.

This is the mathematics that I came to know in college (as a psychology major taking advanced math on a dare from my engineering-major roommate) and then once I saw what it was all about, it was love.

I would also say that abstraction is not only not bad, it’s what makes this whole process beautiful. You make observations and then perform the uniquely human task of trying to discern what the pattern is. That’s what “abstract” means and it’s a fundamental aspect of human thought that can and should be nurtured.

And while I won’t assert that practical skills are important and under-taught in schools, I’d also claim that developing into a functioning adult thinker involves exactly what mathematics, properly understood, focuses on: seeing what’s there, discerning patterns, using logic to explain your reasoning and intellectual honesty to know when your reasoning is wrong. Raise your hand if you wish Trump did this. Raise your hand as well if you think that every person can and should get better at it.

Algebra in school on the other hand gives all of this a bad name by working with problems that are neither interesting nor relevant nor useful. I’d encourage you to ask whether there’s more to math than this — there is.

Finally — I’d highly recommend 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by (mathematicians) Ed Burger and Mike Starbird as a starting point.