May 192008

Investment, any kind, wants success. People invest in a political process and they want to see it succeed; they invest in relationships and they want them to succeed. Investment, it seems, doesn’t like failure

A research funded by the British Economic and Social Research Council says young men avoid studying mathematics because of the unfavourable image of mathematicians. An average mathematician, the Council found through organised focus groups, polls and interviews among students who study mathematics and humanities, is considered “unworldly, slovenly and unpopular with women”.

That’s a great finding but I would like to know how much funding went into generating this profundity.

I can’t do mathematics even on pain of death. Why? Frankly, not because when I was required to do it, I had any particular image of mathematicians but that I was, and remain, plain dumb.

But this is not something I would like to convey publicly, especially to a bunch of researchers who make me sit among a group of people and ask why I do not like studying maths. It is easier for me, as I would assume it generally is, to shift blame to other factors including the rather ludicrous one about the average mathematician’s image.

I do not know which of the three negatives listed by the Council weighs more with the students, if one accepts the research claim, but I am prepared to put my money on being “unpopular with women”. Else, artists in general (and I use the term for a broad range of people) would have evoked the same negative image.

Take for example today’s singers and musicians. Despite their slovenly appearances and for the most part lack of anything other than the ability to jump up and down and create unbearable noise, I know that most young men would want to emulate them for what has come to be known as star value — star value nowadays gets you money as well as women.

I am therefore inclined to think that most people who can’t do mathematics or don’t like doing it lack the highly developed mental faculty required for the discipline and its challenges or are not lucky enough to get a good teacher early on, and not because they don’t like the image of an average mathematician.

The researchers of the report have stressed the need to use the mechanisms of mass culture to form a positive image of a mathematician. This is of course in keeping with their finding, the link between the image of an average mathematician and the reluctance of students to take up maths.

If that were so we could have a few more films like the absurd Good Will Hunting. I am not sure, though, if that film managed to increase the percentage of students wanting to study maths.

Maths, as I said, does require good teaching, bloody good in fact. I don’t know how many of those with the capacity to be good at it may have failed to realise that potential because of a lack of good teaching but what I do know is that good teaching alone cannot get someone as dumb as I to acquire maths.

If my argument is correct, and I can try and prove it if someone is prepared to give me good money for it, then image alone cannot help students learn maths even if it might be able to get them into it. I am not sure if students will become good at maths if Paris Hilton was co-opted to advertise the benefits — intellectual and material — of learning maths or (inconceivably) were one day to get up from the soiled sheets and find herself transformed into a maths genius.

The same argument can be applied to other celebrities ranging from Meera in Pakistan at the lower end of the spectrum to Carla Bruni, now France’s first lady, at the high end of the spectrum.

Having said this, the researchers should be right, for the sake of the funders, if not the students.

Investment, any kind, wants success. People invest in a political process and they want to see it succeed; they invest in relationships and they want them to succeed. Investment, it seems, doesn’t like failure.

Sometimes people keep dragging on because they don’t want to concede failure; sometimes they are too quick to expect results. There are no guarantees; and yet, investments are made and expectations attached.

This is what makes us do things, vote for instance, look for change, at least expect it. I guess keeping hope is a good thing; one day we will be able to solve the puzzle or get a good government, strike the perfect relationship and so on. It never happens — or if it does, doesn’t last. But at least it keeps us busy, makes us look forward to something, even if that something is either nothing or just more of the same.

So yes, let’s change the image of the average mathematician and get more students interested in the discipline; let’s have more of democracy because more is more likely to work; this relationship is likely to last even if the previous didn’t — and so on. And if it doesn’t, who cares. In the end, as Keynes said, we will all be dead.

Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at

Courtesy: Daily times, 18/5/2008

 Posted by at 10:54 pm

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