The Bricklayer

So you think you’re bad at math?

It’s not you, it’s…

Uh, anyway. In the Light of What We Know is one of the better novels I’ve read in the past few years, all the more so because it’s a first novel.

I was so taken with this one passage that I copied it and promptly forgot about it until last week:

One bad maths teacher, he explained, can wreak havoc. A bad history teacher, when you’re twelve years old, say, might mean you don’t acquire a very good grasp of the First World War or the Potsdam Conference. It leaves a hole in your education. The next year, you manage. The early deficiency doesn’t hinder you very much when you later study the Russian Revolution, not in those years when you’re not studying any of these things in great depth anyway. But mathematics is different. If you fail to digest the material prescribed for that year, then everything that follows, in every subsequent year, is next to impossible to take in. Right from the beginning, mathematics education is accretive, a pyramid, each layer of brickwork building up carefully on the last. You can’t understand trigonometry if you haven’t grasped the idea of similar triangles. You can’t grasp calculus if you haven’t understood areas and velocities. And you can’t understand anything at all if your basic algebra is poor. It’s why mathematics professors have such a hard time explaining their work to the public. The great majority of students are vulnerable to one bad teacher. It isn’t enough for a child’s mathematics teachers as a whole to be generally just as bad and just as good as his history teachers. In fact, even if mathematics teachers were generally, which is to say as a group, better than history teachers, the presence of one bad maths teacher early on hampers him mathematically if it doesn’t doom the child to mathematical ignorance.

When I first read the above, I taught English; now I mostly teach math.

Rereading it offers what David St. Hubbins calls “too much… perspective.”