The Oberlin Review

Professor Finds Math Description Problematic

Manish Mehta

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To the Editors:

In classical antiquity, a study of the artes liberales consisted of seven subjects. Grammar, logic and rhetoric comprised the core, the trivium, and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music the remainder, the quadrivium. This framework still casts a shadow on modern higher learning, but sadly not the Review.

While browsing the weekly calendar spread last week, I was startled to read your announcement for the Fuzzy Vance Lecture Series. Following the particulars, your annotation said, “If you’re one of those people who are actually into/excell at math, this is for you, you odd little demographic.” Can you imagine applying the same language to any other announcement in that spread? I challenge you to use the exact wording for any event in the humanities or the social sciences. It would cause a five-alarm political incorrectness alert. The fact that you think it is okay to apply it to a mathematics event is a shameful double standard. I need not point out that the annotation laid bare your ignorance. You also missed a terrific pun opportunity, which I will let you ponder.

If you think anti-intellectualism is something unenlightened people practice elsewhere, think again. I expect wit, and occasionally some erudition, from the main weekly student periodical on a self-admittedly intellectual campus. In this snapshot, there is not a whit of it. In subtly questioning that some people might actually be interested in attending a lecture on logic, your announcement is an embarrassment. “Banal” also comes to mind. It is sad that your best disposition toward mathematics is in the St. Patty’s Day Survival Guide in the same spread: If you show up to math class drunk, you are screwed, whereas in the other classes you can bluff your way out.

In the early 1990s, a short-lived Barbie doll spake, “Math class is tough.” It was pulled from the shelves soon after it was released, for all the reasons you might suspect. If you consider your publication a standard bearer for our campus in the 21st century, I mournfully note that you are still back there with Math Barbie. The Review is run by a small group, so it is not fair to extrapolate to larger cultural attitudes based on this limited sampling. That said, your juvenile approach is still disturbing. Tickle me, inform me, titillate me even, but please do not insult the intelligence of a demographic that is larger than you think. There are ways to poke fun at mathematics without admitting your ignorance. In its current state, your humor falls short of trivial.

My assignment for all the editors at the Review, your penance, is to attend the lecture. There will be no quiz to follow, only enlightenment.

By the way, there are two typos in the calendar spread: it is “excel” not “excell,” and it is “lasses” not “lases,” which refers to the action of a laser.

–Manish Mehta
Associate Professor of Chemistry

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