Languages of Mastery

Languages of Mastery

In my years in the classroom I have heard many math teachers talk about facing math phobia in their students. It starts early and seems to grow worse as the years pass. By the time students reach high school -and often earlier- they are convinced that they cannot do math. A couple of years ago I was buying produce at the Western Fair Farmer’s Market and the vendor gave me incorrect change. I noted the error and she said: “Sorry, I’m a former liberal arts major.” I was struck by this since making change is a simple form of arithmetic, one of the basic building blocks of early math.

I certainly experienced math phobia when I was in school; I always preferred the liberal arts to the hard sciences even though I have abiding interests in biology, architecture, astronomy, geography and meteorology. But this is my point: math became disconnected from the subjects that interested me and the wonder I felt (and feel) at the world.

The reasons for my misperception that I “couldn’t do math” were twofold. First, math was harder for me than other subjects and I assumed that since it was harder, that was an indication that I possessed an intellectual weakness. (Where did this self-deprecation come from?) Second, I attended a high school where several of my math teachers essentially told me that I couldn’t do it. They were impatient with me when I didn’t catch on to a concept “quickly enough.” Needless to say, I became discouraged and when faced with math I frequently shut down.

I mention math because I think it is a source of fear for many adults. But then again, so is writing. How many adults have I known who have said that they never learned how to write or avoided doing so at all costs? In fact, I know many adults who are petrified by writing, especially because it is something that requires peer review and criticism. My father, who is a scientist, once told me that when he first started writing scientific papers it was a terrible struggle for him because throughout his years of medical school and undergraduate work in pre-Med, he seldom had to do any formal writing. It was stinging for him to receive drafts of his articles sent back to him dripping with red ink.

I often encounter students who are just beginning the process of learning how to write. They are young, energetic and imaginative. And yet, when I ask many of them to apply their imagination to writing they freeze up. When I say: “Write about anything! Let your imagination run wild!” They are frightened and don’t want to do it. I admit, it caught me by surprise that a group so young would already have fears about even creative writing.

Responding to this, I have made it my mission to do with writing what I wish had been done for me with math: to connect the act of writing to the wonder of the world around us. Math and writing are languages; they are the most sophisticated tools we have to explore and express our questions, understanding and insights about the world around us. Math and writing are brilliant discoveries, tremendous technologies of personal expression and cognitive power; they are the
essential ingredients of exploration and experimental application. Why shouldn’t every child come out of their formal schooling with a love, appreciation and even formal mastery of both?

Jeremy Nathan Marks