Today, we’re going to talk about math. No, don’t stop reading: for one thing, I only said that we’re going to talk about math, not that we’re going to do math, and for another, the whole point of this post is to talk about why it’s important not to allow our own perceptions of our abilities to interfere with our actual capabilities. This post in some ways is a follow-on to my post about the importance of reading, and really both of them could be lumped under the topic of education, but I’m not trying to propose a restructuring of the education system here. Reading and writing, to me, is about conveying information, and math is just another way of doing that. However it is done, mathematically or through words, it’s important that as many of us as possible understand both how to create and consume that information.
Back in the 1990s, there were a couple of major psychological/neurological theories that gained prominence in the popular psyche (at least in America). The more pernicious of them was the idea of left-brain and right-brain, and the corresponding dichotomy of people between left-brained, analytical, engineering types, and right-brained, spontaneous, creative, artistic types. The theory has since been disproven; it turns out that the brain is a lot more complicated than a simple division between hemispheres, and that all of us actually leverage both hemispheres of our brains (the other theory that gained prominence was the idea that we only use some small percentage of our brains, which has also since been disproven – we use the vast majority of our brains). However, scientific evidence notwithstanding, the split between left brain and right brain remains prevalent in our society today. And that is a problem.
It’s a problem because it has led to the conclusion that some people are simply “good” at certain things, and “bad” at others. That is lazy thinking, and it riddles the entire education system. Teachers and even parents try to identify at early ages whether their students/children are “good” at certain subjects and “bad” at others, and they are then encouraged further in the “good” subjects, while being fielded a convenient excuse to stop trying in the “bad” subjects. If I’d listened to all the people who told me that I was “bad” at math, I probably wouldn’t have pursued an astronautical engineering degree. The same kinds of stories exist for reading, too. I know plenty of engineers who claim that they’re just not “good” at reading, and so they don’t do it, and they couldn’t possibly be lawyers or writers or other careers that require extensive reading and writing capacity.
To date, the scientific evidence suggests that while some people (not all) may have predilections towards certain ways of thinking at a neurological level, everyone has the capability to accomplish in any subject or mode of thought. Trying to categorize people this way merely exacerbates early tendencies (mostly the result of environmental factors), and leads to a self-reinforcing cycle. As much as I say that I pursued the path I did despite the people who discouraged me from those fields, it is more because I had people close to me who encouraged me, despite my apparent struggles, to keep persevering. But this conception we drill into people’s heads about being “good” or “bad” at reading or math (or, as I’ve heard it described, fuzzy brained or hard brained) is doing more than deterring people from pursuing their dreams. It’s making our entire society poorer consumers of information.
Considering this is being called the Information Age, we can’t afford to have poor consumers of information. In an age of the internet, digital technology, and big data, the ability to speak both languages, as it were, has perhaps never been more important. We are surrounded every day by extremely advanced technology and enormous amounts of data, and many people don’t try to understand it because they think they’re brains just aren’t wired to think that way. It’s just an excuse built deep into their psyches, but its continued application means that they won’t be as secure online, among other dangers. Conversely, there are those who might be masters of cybersecurity, but won’t be able to learn about current events or global affairs because reading just “doesn’t come naturally.” All of this, fundamentally, is hampering our understanding of, well, everything.
During the European Renaissance, the maestros of the time weren’t specialized the way they are today. Silversmiths pioneered new mathematical techniques, invented new painting methods, became famous artists, and after all that are primarily remembered for their contributions to architecture (Brunelleschi). Da Vinci dabbled in biology, aeronautics, astronomy, physics, and art. Most of the figures of the time blended what would today be considered hard topics and fuzzy topics. Their breadth of knowledge arguably allowed them to approach problems from different perspectives, and their lack of specialization enabled them to explore different areas and thus discover things that someone who spent their whole life in the field might not have noticed. Even today, the so-called “renaissance man” is generally respected as being able to contribute things that more specialized individuals might not be able to initially conceive. Yet instead of being the aspiration, the goal, such a figure is generally just considered the exception.
If you’re on this site, you probably think of yourself as a reader – after all, this is a site about and dedicated to writing. So, if you’re a reader, I challenge you to two tasks: first, go find a technical article about a subject you find interesting, something with math, and work your way through it (it’s okay if you don’t understand all of it) – maybe you can post the article in the comments below, and second, find someone who’s what might be called “hard brained,” and encourage them to read something – maybe send them here to IGC Publishing. If, on the other hand, you’re a hard brained individual, then my challenge goes the other way: find an article about a “fuzzy” topic, like law, politics, philosophy, or literature – maybe post it in the comments below, and then find a “fuzzy” person, and help them through something technical. Maybe I’m biased – I do have my feet in both worlds, myself – but I truly think that ending this artificial dichotomy will benefit individuals, and our society as a whole.