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.