Confessions of a Math Major

I’m not proud to say it, but I majored in math because I wanted people to think I was smart. I chose the math major as a status symbol, a résumé-topper. I consider myself an innocent dreamer, a lover of curiosity and learning, so the fact that I navigated college with such calculating self-interest isn’t exactly a badge of honor. But that’s not my confession.

My confession is that I don’t think math is better than any other subject. Not in the ways that matter.

Let’s be clear: I love math. It teaches how to solve problems through abstraction. You learn how to spot good puzzles; how to frame them; how to uncover patterns, to advance by logical steps, and to strain towards higher levels of generality, until the problem at hand becomes as simple and automatic as tying your shoes. It teaches the superpower of logical, abstract thinking.

But every class teaches a superpower.

In English class, you learn sensitivity to the aesthetic force of language. You learn to enjoy a well-written paragraph as a minor symphony. You learn tone, diction, syntax, purpose. You learn the superpower of precise and forceful communication—the superpower, in short, of reading and writing.

To study history is to find narrative threads in the mad sprawl of the past. Our civilization is a one-time experiment, unrepeatable by its nature—and yet the history student finds causal connections, ways to explain the present by what came before. History’s superpower is to sift meaning from the great mass of human experience.

Through science, you learn to marry intuition with skepticism. Their offspring is a special sort of creativity, the ability to imagine not merely what could be, but what really is. Anyone can invent a story. But science’s superpower is to invent true stories, explanations of the world that can predict its behavior, theories reached by testing and refining and testing again.

Studying a foreign language means unlocking another culture—which means unlocking a community, a heritage, a way of being human. Most of us spend our lives bathed in a single language, but in Spanish or French or Mandarin class, we clamber out of that native bath, inspect our wrinkled skin, and submerge ourselves in something vast and foreign. We learn the superpower of navigating new worlds.

I could go on and on, exhausting the roster of university departments, but the point is that none of these gifts is greater or lesser than the others. None strikes closest to the human spirit, or captures best the nature of human intellect.

I don’t mean to assert some false equivalency. Not all fields offer equal challenges, or draw researchers of equal caliber, or lead to equal job prospects. My point is not that all subjects are somehow the same. In fact, my point is precisely the opposite.

The disciplines differ. They differ in content, in method, in mindset. They require different forms of insight, and pursue different forms of truth, none inherently better than another. Simply because I’m human, all these ideas and approaches are part of my heritage, and like everyone, I have some small gift for each. It’s up to me which gift I choose to grow, which path I choose to explore—even as I wish I had time for them all.

So let’s keep praising mathematicians and those in the “hard sciences”—their work is powerful, beautiful, and transformative for our society. But let’s also make sure to spread the kudos around.

15 thoughts on “Confessions of a Math Major

  1. I majored in math because it was the only thing I was good at. But I’ve come to appreciate other disciplines as well. I get the “You must be really smart if you can do math. I’m terrible at math.”

    My first response is that “I’m terrible at whatever discipline you excel in, you must be really smart.” Sometimes they get the logical error, sometimes not.

    I see everyone as potentially really smart, some just haven’t found their discipline. It’s like the Einstein (I think) quote “If you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree it will go through it’s whole life thinking it’s an idiot.”

    1. Yeah, I love that Einstein quote.

      I think what it boils down to is that “smart” is not a terribly well-defined concept. Our folk notions of intelligence all have some agreement, but there’s some disagreement, too. And so snap judgments like “math majors must be smart!” don’t tend to serve much use.

  2. Great reading!
    Let me add a different perspective. There are 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

  3. Thanks for writing this. I work at a stultifying, solitary job and look forward immensely to your posts, and this one is particularly inspiring and inclusive. Needed it today.

  4. Nice to see the appreciation spread around. I majored in both math and english; I couldn’t choose. The math was hard for me, but I liked the challenge. The english just felt right. Both offered ways to describe the world.

    1. Well-said. A friend on Facebook said something similar: “Dworkin has a very interesting chapter in his Justice for Hedgehogs about the distinction between scientific and interpretive domains of thought, defending the merits of both.”

  5. I appreciate this. I double majored in math and a history/philosophy of science program (less a department, more just taking a ton of history and philosophy classes vaguely connected to science and calling it a major). I was really good at the history stuff, and just okay at math. I think if I had realized that sooner I would’ve been a lot happier.

    But at the time, I poured so much energy and heartache into the math because I couldn’t get over my pro-math anti-everything else prejudices. Math was too amazing to do anything else, right? And I had to one-up my brother the physicist. And math would get me better jobs. So what if I wasn’t really happy?

    I still love math and use it in my current career… but I was never going to be a mathematician. I’m a math practitioner at best. I often wonder what might have been different if I had been a little more open to other possibilities earlier on.

    1. Yeah – math is very cool stuff, and it really does help one’s job prospects, so I certainly wouldn’t argue against studying it. But math also confers a certain status, and I think status-seeking leads us astray more often than it helps us out. Especially when it leads us to discount or disparage other interesting and worthwhile fields. Glad to hear that it sounds like you’ve eventually found a happy medium.

  6. Hi Ben,

    I’d really like to use some of your thoughts and all of the drawings in an assembly I am delivering to a group of Year 10 students in Peterborough (England) who will shortly be considering their options for further study. I will certainly give all credit to you- is that alright? I am a math(s) teacher and would like to encourage them to continue studying math(s), but I really appreciate your perspective.

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