Mathematics, Freud, and me

August 8, 2012

Freud’s theory that bad experiences in early childhood may have a great influence on one’s attitudes in adulthood seems, certainly, to be true in my case, with many subjects. Having had very different exposures to different “subjects” in school, my attitude towards them differs greatly.

I had excellent teachers for languages. Apart from this, I was exposed to a lot of reading in English, Tamizh, Bengali and Hindi at home, too (My mother, who moved to Calcutta a couple of years after her marriage, arranged a Bengali master and learnt enough Bengali to read classics like Anando Matth in the original…and I read them this way, too, as she asked me to take Bengali as the third language at school, and taught me Tamizh at home.)

I therefore developed a great love for languages, that persists to this day. I delighted, when I moved to Bangalore, in taking language courses…German, Sanskrit, Esperanto, Japanese….and this was learning (and, alas, forgetting!) for its own sake. There was no “why” to my learning…and that, to me, is the true mark of education.

However, with other subjects, I was not so lucky…and Mathematics, especially, was my bete noire (or to put it more simply, the bane of my life).

Recently, my friend Rewati Karmakar remarked on a photo that I’d posted on Facebook, pointing out how getting exposed to concepts like the Fibonacci numbers sparked her interest in Mathematics.

I really wish I had been exposed to something like this in my childhood…I have a great aversion to mathematics as a result of the way I was exposed to the subject, never understanding the concepts. I think, now, that Maths is beautiful (like music)…but the space in my head where figures reside…seems to be blank.

I can remember odd things, like the number of the bill that I paid for in the shop…but when asked to manipulate numbers, I shy from the task, and the more my hesitancy, the more likely I am to make major mistakes. It’s a kind of vicious circle…spiralling down into avoiding Maths (I refuse to call it Math.)

I could never understand WHY a plus b had to be squared, why the equation of a hyperbola is x-squared plus y-squared is equal to zero.(That is, if I remember right.) Why could we not leave the parabolas and the hyperbolas alone, and why did we have to bother with a and b and c, all the way down to the end of the alphabet? Not understanding the concepts meant that I never developed any taste for the subject, a state of affairs that exists to this day.

In the same way, I learnt to enjoy Physics, but got to dislike Chemistry. Even in Physics, all those decimals in the “Coefficient of Linear Expansion” problems would throw me off completely! and I could never balance those chemical equations properly.

So…I think it IS important to have good teachers in one’s childhood, rather than chalk-on-blackboard “it-is-so-because-I-say-so” type of teaching, which often stultifies the child’s budding interest and inters in the mud of ignorance for ever.

Catch a child’s interest, imagination, and sense of wonder when their minds are still open and tender, and you have a love of learning that lasts for life. Fail to do this, and you have an aversion…that lasts for life.