You’re Not Actually Bad at Math

A new way to think about how to reason.

Illustration by Mouni Feddag

Math is generally a required subject for students in the United States until college. You might elect not to take further math classes because of a lack of aptitude—I’m not a math person. But this is the wrong reason to stop.

The idea that someone can be bad at math is wrong, and it hides several harmful assumptions. It’s an excuse to justify individual failure, rather than a real understanding of mental capabilities. Giving up on math means you don’t believe that careful study can change the way you think. No one is born knowing the axiom of completeness, and even the most accomplished mathematicians had to learn how to learn this stuff. Put another way: Writing is also not something that anyone is “good” at without a lot of practice, but it would be completely unacceptable to think that your composition skills could not improve.

Additionally, people tend to judge math too soon. While you might struggle with early math classes, you might not in the advanced ones because the material can differ wildly. A third-year–level class is not necessarily three times as much work as a first-year class; it might actually be less, since the material and methods get easier as you spend more time with them. I had this experience in high school. Until I took a class called Combinatorics, the hardest class I ever took was Algebra I. I had never felt so hopeless and confused, and whenever I was told my answer was correct, I was convinced I was faking it. College math wasn’t easy either, but my struggles were more isolated, and I learned how to break down problems and point to what didn’t make sense.

But the strangest part of math phobia is that math is pure logic, abstract reasoning, and clear writing. I don’t mean this metaphorically: This is literally what math is. Any result can be reduced back to simpler ones until you reach assumed statements called axioms. Simple doesn’t mean easy, but I think math has fewer moving parts than most other subjects. Consider all the things you need to know to be a student of literature: You need a rich understanding of language, history, context, and literary devices. Math explicitly lays out its assumptions in terms that everyone agrees on. Or consider other sciences: They can reduce results back to simpler results like math can, but we are ultimately stuck with whatever part of reality we are able to measure. Math’s foundations rest on logic instead of reality. I don’t mean to compare math with other subjects to advance a claim of math’s superiority or importance. Instead, my point is that, in principle, if students think they can’t study math, then something is deeply wrong.

It seems that the origin of math phobia is not the content of math itself; it cannot rest solely on someone’s inability to sit through logic puzzles, because people exercise careful abstract reasoning in every other field without the same sort of fear. Instead, I think the form is largely to blame. All of high school math is basically a one-way linear staircase that leads to calculus. If you fall off at any point, you’re doomed. Calculus prep has infiltrated the curriculum to such a degree that I think people conflate doing algebra with all of math. Students spend so much time memorizing computational tricks that they don’t get to see anything else—that those algorithms have a logical derivation, and that plenty of math isn’t even like that.

In general, a disproportionate percentage of college math classes are designed to satisfy prerequisites from other departments. The courses’ primary function, then, is to impart specific skills, which is why all math classes administer tests with correct answers instead of, say, open-topic research papers, which are common in introductory humanities classes. The kind of thinking this encourages is not why math was a foundation of liberal arts education.

For several decades math reformers have attempted to swap out the curriculum engine midflight but have met resistance and failure. Teachers need to master methods but are not given the time and resources to do so. Confused helicopter parents do not accept any deviation from old instruction—this is not how I learned it. School districts continue to administer tests that might not gauge actual learning and understanding.

I might not be able to change the way that math is taught, but hopefully I can change the way we think about math. Not every educated person needs to be a mathematician, but no educated person should be afraid of the steps it takes to get there. Please take math in college, especially if you are “not a math person.” It’s time to stop perpetuating a fear of material that educated people should be smart enough to conquer.

Read more of Slate’s collection of classes you should take.