May 3, 2017

Getting Good at Math (Again?)

Getting Good at Math (Again?)

Math and I have a very peculiar history. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor. I would sketch out ideas for machines that kept ball bearings suspended in place, automatic log splitters and presidential escape rockets.

I quickly learned that to make stuff, I needed to learn to think logically. I remember cutting out the entries for geometry and algebra from a encyclopedia my grandmother brought home for me from a yard sale so that I could memorize them. Why? I’m not sure. I certainly had just as many quirks back then as I do now.

Most kids do not admit to loving math, and more particularly, equate it with institutional torture. Middle-school Jamie Howard was more ambivalent about it than anything else. Math came easy to me, but I certainly wasn’t a fan.

In high school, I was very lazy and I passed my sophomore year advanced math class with a 70, which meant that I technically passed, but only by the skin of my teeth. Because of this, they placed me in a class with the remedial upperclassmen—an arithmetic limbo of sorts.

Fast forward to adulthood when I started to read books for fun and do math on my lunchbreak. When learning wasn’t forced and didn’t count towards a degree or a grade, I suddenly became very academic. Last year, I made the goal to study my way through Calculus on Khan Academy. The site allows you to start at basic arithmetic (think 1+1), and move up from there. I didn’t complete that goal, but because of it, I did work through to Trigonometry.

Apparently, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite books were the Bible and Euclid’s Elements. He said that Euclid taught him how to think logically when he was studying to become a lawyer. There’s something about math that transcends graphs and worksheets into the realm of the seemingly unrelated real world.

When we force ourselves to work step-by-step through a math problem, we’re training our brain in a number of ways. First, we’re learning about persistence. As C.S. Lewis said:

Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.
If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

In working through math problems, we learn to recognize our mistakes and go back to the last correct juncture before continuing on. In life, we may not be able to go back to where “it all went wrong” per se, but we certainly can do that mentally and move on in a different direction.

Math also teaches us the importance of inherited wisdom. We put men on the moon, not because one person figured it out, but because in 200 BC, Euclid had some ideas, then Newton, then engineers at NASA, and so-on. We stand on the shoulders of those that came before us, and there is a faith in their work that teaches us to remain humble and grateful.

Finally, math teaches us about ourselves. There’s a verse in the Bible that says:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
— Hebrews 4:12 (ESV)

This verse is basically saying that reading the Bible is going to reveal things in you that may not be the most comfortable thing. According to scripture, God is eternal and sovereign, so it makes sense that He would have some ideas about things that I, in my limited mindset, don’t agree with.

Math kind of works the same way. You can shout at numbers all you want, but they’ll reply, in perfect stoicism, “You’re wrong.”

I tried to write out the first 20 numbers in the Fibonacci sequence as quickly as I could. I then asked my wife to do it (she’s a good wife that humors me on weird stuff like this). Going through this and learning how much faster she was than me, helped me to notice some mental hurdles that I was self-imposing. Math is the measure whether you agree or not, and that will teach you more about yourself than you realize.

Math can be elusive in ways, and rigid for sure, but there is a sure-footedness that is comforting, and makes it possible for us to do really amazing things.

Here’s to finishing that goal of making it through to Calculus—if for nothing else, but to learn how to think a little bit better.