In my experience, students of mathematics don’t get along with students of writing.  Each will feel that his or her field of study is superior to the other, and they will defend it to the death.  It’s sort of illegal now, but I’m willing to bet that in medieval times people would have jousted over the issue.

I saw evidence of this yesterday at the fall orientation session for the students I work with.  The program has added a couple new math teachers, and they both had the opportunity to introduce themselves and their classes.  One teacher remarked that as a well-traveled citizen of the world, she feels that learning how to communicate in writing can only get you so far.  Having been to, and lived in countless countries, she has found that there is only one language that is constant: math.

It’s a common argument for the study of math, and I don’t dispute the claim.  Numbers and mathematics are powerful tools for conveying the relationship between things.  Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I feel like it’s a closed system.  They describe the relationship between quantities and variables.  They can’t describe things.  You can’t use math as a language for conversation if you travel to a foreign country.  You could use it to determine your travel budget, but you can’t book a hotel room or tell your waiter that you’re allergic to peanuts.

Or let me put it another way.  Check out these two analogies:

1.) Life is like a box of chocolates.

2.)                        4+3 = 7

The first one makes you think about the characteristics of each noun in the sentence.  The second comparison just says that four and three together have the same value as seven.  Writing and words have much more potential for conveying complex ideas.  Life is more intricate than seven—it’s as simple as that.  I appreciate the sentiment behind the “language of math” idea, but I don’t quite buy it.  I think the closest that math will come to being able to communicate ideas is the small vocabulary built into those calculator tricks where you type in a number and turn it upside down to spell a word.

I’m not an opponent of math.  I actually enjoy it, and I see the value and power of it as a science and practice.  Math created the logic behind all the mechanics and theories that put us on the moon.  But when Neil Armstrong let us know it was “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he communicated the importance of that milestone.

So, new math teacher: just let math be math, and writing be writing.  And if you can’t let it be, I’m not opposed to a duel.

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