A beauty or a beast

Written by Sarah Cooney

Why accepting the unexpected is good

I recently saw Disney’s great new movie “Beauty and the Beast” and it got me thinking about attitudes toward math.  And, yes, I know you’re thinking,  ‘Sarah where are you going with this?’  But hear me out.

Here at Saint Joseph’s University, math courses for non-math majors are called “math beauty” courses.  They are designed to give students an introduction to the beauty of pure mathematics, that is mathematics explored for its own sake.  However, after three semesters as a supplemental instructor (SI) for Linear Methods, which introduces formal logic, linear algebra and graph theory, I’ve found that this course is more beast than beauty for many.   

I’ll admit up front that I do believe there is an element of talent or natural ability that allows some people to appreciate mathematics, but for the most part I think what holds people back is attitude.  There is a prejudice against math that keeps the general public from seeing the beauty that we mathematicians see.  I find beauty in the abstractions, patterns and interconnections in mathematics, and it’s honestly a little frustrating that this beauty is so hard to share.

I believe that the general bias against math stems from our system of education.  We are first taught to think of as math as arithmetic, which is only a small branch of the larger subject.  You might think that as a math major I sit around crunching numbers all day, but I actually rarely use arithmetic these days. Arithmetic, while perhaps one of the most useful and practical branch of mathematics, is far from the heart of the field. After we’ve mastered the operations of arithmetic (PEMDAS anyone?), we slowly work our way toward algebra.  This is the first opportunity to see the abstraction in mathematics. However, this is also where the prejudice truly takes hold.

While arithmetic has a practicality—it’s all around us in little moments every day—in algebra, there are letters and symbols. Suddenly, math can seem much less relevant. Then it’s geometry, trigonometry and calculus, and as the connections become more apparent, the questions continue: Why is this important and when will I use this? In the flurry of standardized testing, report cards and other politics of the education system, these questions often go unanswered.

In order to stunt mathematical prejudices, we need to answer these questions.  Frankly, we should study math because it is good for the mind.  In a way, studying math is like reading Shakespeare in English—it’s not always pleasant or easy to get through, but it’s important nonetheless. Sure, you may never whip out the Pythagorean Theorem after you’ve finished your requisite semester of math, but math is important for learning to appreciate reason, logical problem solving and the incredible patterns and paradigms that it reveals in our world.

Furthermore, just as with Shakespeare and literature, we have to appreciate the foundation in order to push forward into the future.  We must study math to become the rational problem solvers that our future demands. 

Another registration week has just come and gone, and if you’ve just signed up for a math beauty next semester, I hope you go in with an open mind to see the beauty, in these courses and not the beast.

About the author

Sarah Cooney

Sarah Cooney, '17

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