In today’s comics, there is this Non Sequitur one:
Comics, to me, are interesting regardless of whether a particular one is funny, since they reveal a lot about the community and the society in which they appear. Usually, comics make an explicit point, but whether they do or not, they operate in a background of shared assumptions about what does not need to be said.
So what does this comic strip reveal about widely-held attitudes about math? For one, there is no need to explain why the kid is frustrated in the first panel. The one-word title on the book says enough. It’s math! It also needs no explanation why Danae needs to come up with a new system to make math fun – because we all know and appreciate that the old system isn’t. This is so obvious that when a comic strip intends to portray somebody as a real geek, all they have to do is show that those kids do like math, like Jason in the Foxtrot comics.
What other attitudes about math does it reveal? On the surface, the strip talks about using math to prove that you are right. But what is meant by “proving”? Somehow, it doesn’t sound like the intent is to carefully lay out your ideas so that somebody else will be convinced, see it for themselves, and say “I see it now! Of course!” Somehow, it doesn’t sound like Danae now sees math as an activity aimed at shared understanding, or a shared appreciation of ideas. That’s not in the background of shared assumptions – however much I would like it to be, it isn’t yet. Far from it. Danae’s notion of proving herself right seems to be more akin to invoking a powerful spell that smites the other person dead. The notion of math as an activity of invoking mysterious incantations that – if done just right – kills argument: the notion of mathematicians as a priesthood with math teachers as the nuns, making you repeat incomprehensible magic spells like Quod Erat Demonstrandum! Except that they aren’t ever even half as much fun as the magic and the spells in the Harry Potter books.
Math as magic invocations is a common attitude in school, too. The magic invocations are important because the teacher says so, and the only way the child knows if she’s doing the invocations right is because the teachers says so. Some kids seem to have the knack, and others don’t, and that’s just the way it is. School essentially continues with the kids who have the knack. In secondary schools, kids meet many teachers – successful adults in a position of authority – who are not their math teachers, and who will tell them straight up that math wasn’t for them, either. If a vast majority of kids comes out of school, having survived school, thinking that they don’t have the knack to do magic math invocations right, we shouldn’t be too surprised. The structure of the school experience helps perpetuate it.