As I have been teaching and tutoring lately, I’ve just been struck by how many students mention to me that “I hate math” or “I’ve never been good at math” or something similar. And I’ve really just been thinking – why is that?

Plenty of students in high school do poorly in Reading also,  but you rarely hear students say “I hate reading” or “I’ve just never been good at reading.” It’s just assumed that it’s something everyone has the ability to do.

In some sense, I do agree that math is more akin to music – there is an art to doing it well, and being able to eloquently perform and articulate mathematics is arguably just as form of art as music. But when have we, as a society, come to believe that it’s acceptable to hate math or to be okay to not being able to do math?

At its essence, mathematics is something that every human has the ability to do – reason, problem-solve, puzzle, play around with figures. And I, for one, argue that I’m not exceptionally gifted in mathematics at all; in fact, I tell people if they take all the math classes I’ve taken, they could do it, too! I don’t see it as a particularly specialized talent. I think most humans, if they wanted to, could do some serious hardcore math.

The notion that our planet, universe, and entire way of life revolves around mathematics (and statistics!), it would seem all the more important to understand. Life itself is a buzz of probabilities, statistics, and mathematical models that guide our day-to-day life. No to mention the smartphones, GPS, Internet, computer programs, etc. that all are extremely mathematical at their core. In fact, it has been said that mathematics is the language of God because (perhaps) everything can be described mathematically in a model of some sort.

I have a few theories about why people “hate” math:

  1. If you struggle in one year of math, but score high enough to pass, you set yourself up for worse struggle the next year. And struggling = not fun. All it takes is one bad teacher or a bad year for you individually and your math track is screwed.
  2. More than any other subject in school (besides maybe Computer Science – which is math!), math forces you to think critically and problem solve. And I’m not saying people are lazy, but they definitely prefer easy-going ideas that take little effort to develop.
  3. People don’t like failure. This I feel is one of the main reasons. It’s not that they hate math itself — they hate the feeling of failure, and in mathematics, everyone fails. In fact, math is all about failing. But failing to solve a problem and messing up is a key step in truly learning it.

Personally, I feel the failure reason catches the most people in it. They aren’t used to the idea of failing or getting something wrong or struggling to figure it out – but that’s the essence of mathematics. No one can truly succeed in mathematics without failing and having to back up and try a different approach.

And that’s why I, for one, LOVE mathematics. It taps into a key human fear and emotion and forces you to confront it and learn from it. It’s a mirror of life itself – failure is very possible in life, but you have to problem-solve in real time to figure out real life issues. Math, more than any other subject in high school and college, embraces this. Just like in life, it’s okay to be wrong. And that’s what truly makes math great. I can only hope more students will see this, so they never have a good reason to hate math anymore.