Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Morning Expiration

See, I was inspired by something this morning, and so my comments in response are my expiration, get it? No one is dying, exhaling, or running out of time. (Any faster than normal, that is.)

Anyway, the inspiration was Stephen Fry's Podgram on Language. My expiration is about math.

Stephen (I call him Stephen, 'cause we're friends. On Twitter, but still) refers to language as intrinsic to humans. Those children purposely raised without exposure to any language went and invented their own. The capacity for language, and more, the capacity to express and enjoy the beauty of language, is inside you from the moment you're born. Also, he briefly laments how not very many enjoy language. "Words, it seems, belong to other people...The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious." Those few who bother with language, Stephen asserts, "bother with it in quite the wrong way." He then mounts a tirade against the "pedants" who write letters to the editor complaining about grammar errors in the grocery, "in which they show off their own superior `knowledge' of how language should be".

Of course, while on the road to work, this reminded me of math. First, math is as innate, perhaps more intrinsic, than language. Math is physically innate: you are born with counting hardwired at the ends of your limbs -- your digits, naturally. I don't think it's too bold to say that the fundamentals of number and division, for example, are fundamentally ingrained in our minds, too. When we think kids have to "learn to count", really we mean that they need to learn we call the numbers (tying the math to the language), but the numberness of numbers is that "this many" of my fingers is the same as "that many" of sheep or rocks or other kids or what have you.

Second, if the deft use of language is derided, and enjoying language is elitist...then using math suffers doubly, triply, a thousand times moreso. I know of no society, no matter how anti-intellectual, in which it is socially acceptable to say "I'm illiterate". And if you're being picky, "illiterate" implies writing; the claim "I can't do English" is nearly unthinkable (and nearly self-contradicting). But "I can't do math" is as acceptable as commenting on the weather.

Third, I can't avoid wondering if there isn't a frighteningly stark parallel between the pedants Stephen detests so much and...well, are those few who bother with math showing off their superior `knowledge' of how math should be? Are we, also, bothering with it in quite the wrong way? There's a natural response about the "correctness" of math being critical to its mission -- a message can be communicated even with incorrect grammar, but math is too fragile to hold on to its meaning in the face of error. But still, that's math in the small...we overlook "arithmetic errors" in higher level math all the time. Is it really so impossible to focus on the "big picture" in algebra, geometry, arithmetic? Or are we pedants and sticklers as much by inclination and tradition as by necessity?

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