Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 240:
MATH IS TOO HARD

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 240.

Today, we talk about a pleasure that America cannot do without. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I teach a course in the history of technology to both technical and nontechnical students. It's a lot of fun for me. The engineers have to read history and the nonengineers have to understand how the engines of our ingenuity actually operate.

Neither group has any natural advantage. What one person can do, another can also do. But the nontechnical students sometimes panic when they find that they're expected to understand things like clock escapements and steam engines.

When I was little, I thought airplane pilots had a peculiar God-given gift of flight -- that a few people could fly, while most of us could not. Too many students think that math, science, and engineering are like that. That notion is one that America has let run, unabated, far too long.

Those students dispose of me by saying, "Oh, I can't do mathematics," or "I'm not able to understand machinery." They expect the same immunity that a blind student has when a class is asked to analyze the colors in a painting. You don't force a person to overcome a limitation that clearly cannot be overcome.

I have reason to feel sympathy for those students. I was quite hopeless in high-school mathematics. Only when I started college did common sense tell me that mathematics was no more beyond me than flying an airplane or riding a bicycle. I signed up for college algebra and then sat up 'til three in the morning trying to find the essential simplicity that was evident to other people. One night I did find it -- my fear fell away and the obviousness of those manipulations came clear.

I was luckier than some. Too many young people wrap themselves permanently in that mantle of fear. And the fear of math usually precedes the fear of science, the fear of technology, and ultimately the fear of original thinking.

We teachers have to share the blame for letting hard thought be terrifying instead of fun. Sometimes we hide the pleasure of mental sport behind stultifying formalisms. Some elementary schools are asking if they can use games to bring back the element of mental play. Can you think of a better way to teach probability than by letting students play gambling games!

Students will never know any pleasure like the pleasure of finding that a door is open to their minds when they thought it was closed. Everyone should know the exhilaration of finding a capability he didn't know was there. Self-assurance has been America's most important resource. It's endangered today, yet it's a resource that we absolutely have to sustain.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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