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What's the Matter with Math?

I have a very love/hate relationship with the discipline of mathematics. On the one hand, I understand the power of numbers, I appreciate their useful applications, I often wish I was some sort of math whiz like Nate Silver or Bill James or the fictional character from NUMB3RS. On the other hand, the process of learning math can be a painful experience. I think it causes a lot of people to write off the mathematical concepts as "useless," even though they can be incredibly useful in many disciplines. I'm sure it's the reason why many otherwise very smart people give up on it after high school or college and never look back.

(from flickr user tkamenick)

In college, I've taken pre-calculus, calculus 1, calculus 2, basic statistics, intermediate statistics, and currently mathematical economics.

Pre-calculus was by no means difficult. I signed up for it before I decided to major in economics, figuring I could get a math credit out of the way and an A to boot. In hindsight, it was not the best strategy.

Calculus 1 was mostly about derivatives. It wasn't particularly difficult. I got an A. Calculus 2 was mostly integrals. I had almost no idea what was going on most of the time. I elected to take the class pass/fail, so I don't know what grade the professor gave me - probably a C or D.

Similarly, I elected basic statistics pass/fail. I struggled to get through it. Again, I probably got a C or D. Then I took intermediate statistics and found it very easy . I got an A.

Whats going on here? While it seems like I'm a complete schizophrenic when it comes to learning math, I think there is more to it. How, for example, could I barely understand basic statistics but ace intermediate statistics? I honestly think the single most important factor in all of these instances was how well the material was applied to reality.

In calculus 1, along with learning derivatives, we learned the many uses and applications of derivatives. I did well in intermediate statistics because I knew exactly what the statistical procedures were useful for (thanks mostly to my job). In calculus 2 and basic statistics, the professor spent the semester flying through highly theoretical mathematical concepts.

I'm a right-brained person - typically good at writing and bad at visualizing mathematical concepts. I hate mathematical proofs. I just want to trust that someone much smarter than me figured the stuff out long ago. Most math courses, however, are taught by left-brained people (and why shouldn't they be?) For left-brained people, teaching math in a highly theoretical manner might be fine because it's very easy for them to understand. But for us right-brained people? The concepts become infinitely easier to comprehend when you know exactly what application it will have in real-life.

I have a math exam tomorrow. For a course called "mathematical economics" there has been almost no economic application so far in the semester. That really frustrates me an makes me anxious about the exam. Hopefully it does not play out as history may predict.


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