Then I fell head-first into the the wave of “New Math” that swept through our school district in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The particular curriculum imposed upon us eliminated the classic categories of mathematics such as algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and instead grouped concepts into what the curriculum designers thought were “unified” ideas: sets, relations, operations, groups, rings, fields, and vector spaces. Particularly onerous to me were the exercises of proving theorems with axioms. And as a result, I floundered. I was pulling C’s and D’s on tests and barely squeaked a passing grade.
My parents were not able to help. They knew arithmetic and some algebra and geometry. My mom was a capable bookkeeper and my dad could calculate board-feet of lumber needed to construct a house. But vectors and axioms? Forget it. I don’t recall any offers for after school tutoring from the school. In fact, I blocked out most of that middle-school experience from my memory.
I must have scored high on some assessment test because in high school I got dropped into pre-calculus. The teacher with an absolutely loathsome man whose disdain for young women was quite evident. Fun and chatty with the boys, he was cool and condescending with the girls, often belittling them for incorrect answers. Furthermore, the boys were rewarded for quickly finishing their in-class assignments by being allowed to play chess with the teacher. (Several chessboards going at the same time with the teacher moving from one to another). The rest of us, mostly girls and a few boys, were left on our own to work on our assignments. I don’t recall any help offered (he was busy check-mating). In another course, the instructor was much kinder but could not control his class. At the time, computers were being introduced, and we were given assignments to complete on it. To get the girls off the computer so they could play with it, some boys would do the girls’ assignments to move them along more quickly. If the instructor knew what was happening, he did nothing about it.
Worst of all was my having to explain to my parents why I would come home with a report card that had four A’s and a C+ in math. They were not buying my explanations of the poor quality of the teachers. They figured I was spending too much time reading books or watching television. By that time I had developed a full-blown case of math-anxiety.
When I went to college, I was able to avoid taking math for several semesters until I just could not dodge it anymore. Before I became a history major, I was a psychology major and had to take Statistical Math and Statistical Methods before I could take some of the more interesting psychology courses. Two remarkable things happened:
First, I excelled in Statistical Math. I think it had a lot to do with the course being taught by a woman who was patient and took the time to explain and help. I was also an adult who had had time to build up some inner confidence. Whatever psychological block I had seemed to evaporate. I got my first A ever in math.
Secondly, I learned something about math. You might think mathematics is cut and dried, black and white, always precise. That is, with math there is only one correct answer. Not true. Half way through Statistical Methods I discovered that there are multiple ways to analyze data. One statistical formula could give you a different result than another formula with the same data. My eyes were opened to the fact that you could prove just about anything if you tinkered with the numbers. A major disillusionment with math set in. It was probably an over-reaction, but was real nevertheless.
With that I marched into my advisor’s office and said “I’m switching my major from Psychology to History.” His reply: “You would rather study dead people than live ones?” Yep, because at least I would not have to do math.
I have often wondered: if I had had a better experience with math, would I have gone on to excel in the sciences and perhaps have had a better-paying and more prestigious career?
I’ll never know.