OKIE IN EXILE — Building Bridges

Bobby Neal Winters
Bobby Winters

Social media has supercharged our discourse. I don’t use the word “supercharged” lightly; there are sparks flying off everything. Recently this phenomenon has manifested itself in yours truly being tagged in a post of an article that conveyed a charge: Mathematics is racist.

This was on Facebook. The article was written by a journalist who was writing about something a scholar had said. I don’t even know if the journalist was writing for a right-wing rag or a left-wing rag. There are plenty of both, each specializes in making things the other side says sound stupid and the stupid things they say sound even stupider.

I’ve not read the words of the scholar. I’ve not followed up on their research. I’ve not done due diligence in this.

I will, regardless, use this as an opportunity to defend mathematics. I do this because mathematics has provided a bridge for me to a different sort of world than I grew up in.

As much as I was able to discern, there are those who claim that mathematics is racist because it says there is only one right answer. Here I need to make a correction of fact; mathematics does not claim there is only one right answer.This might shock some of the right wingers who are waving this as a bloody shirt. 

In mathematics there are times when we can show — with a level of certainty that is not approached in any other area of human endeavor — there are infinitely many solutions to a given problem and we can describe exactly what they are.

This being said, mathematics specializes in being careful. We teach processes. The processes have multiple steps. In each of these steps there is a possibility of going wrong, but typically we set the processes up so that at the end there is one correct answer that everyone should get to. This makes homework easier to check. In that way, mathematics is rigid.  

We get into trouble with this. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard: “I got the right answer, but I didn’t do it the way the teacher said, so they counted it wrong. I think the teacher is a jerk. I hate math.”

This usually comes from the brighter students who are mistaken in what they think their teacher is teaching. In the basic mathematics courses — and I am talking about up to calculus and even beyond — we are not teaching problem solving, at least not in its full glory. We are teaching methods of problem solving.  

The methods we teach are tools, so when you get the right answer by using a method other than what the teacher was using, that’s like when you use a pair of pliers to tighten a nut when the shop teacher was trying to teach you how to use a socket wrench. Yes, I have no doubt that’s the way you will do it in real life, but you have just cheated yourself out of learning how to use a socket wrench. Don’t expect to get credit for it.

The set of methods learned in math class form a toolbox. I personally love to see students come up with ways I’ve not seen provided they are true methods and not just accidents.  

There is such a thing as mathematical truth. Here I will sound more like a theologian than a mathematician. Mathematical truth is eternal: It is true yesterday, today, and forever.

Let me illustrate this with one of my favorite stories about spherical trigonometry.  Trigonometry is about triangles; spherical trigonometry is about triangles on the surfaces of spheres. If a triangle on the surface of a sphere is bothersome to you, suck it up and push past it.  

Anyway, there was some wonderful work done on spherical trigonometry by the Muslims in Persia. They did the math so they would know the right direction to Mecca as an aid to them in prayer. It was brilliant work, then hundreds of years later, spherical trigonometry was used in navigation to aid in the exploration of the world.  

This spherical trigonometry — in tandem with mathematical development in astronomy and improved time-keeping devices — allowed sailors who were thousands of miles away from home to know where they were with incredible precision. This kept them from getting lost and running up on shoals or getting lost and dying of scurvy or getting lost and having any number of other untoward things happen to them.

We need mathematics — and its incredible unforgiving precision — because sometimes it is the difference between life and death.

We can also do a better job of teaching it. This goes for most subjects. There are young people who don’t have the advantages of middle-class, suburban youths. As teachers we will have to build our metaphorical bridges to the students. At the end, those students are going to be building real bridges that we hope won’t give way. In the end, the student will have a mathematical bridge that will take them to a new world.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube.