Jimmy Buffet, the popular singer, says it "suks." Others consider it a curse. And a few, if they had their way, would ban it from schools altogether.

What is this terrible scourge that incites fear and loathing in the hearts of "ParrotHeads" and school board administrators across the land? Would you believe, math.

It wasn't always this way, of course. Math used to be the foundation on which America's school system proudly stood before the world. Now, the third of the "three R's" has become a stumbling block, an academic hurdle that can't be made low enough to pass the average student, particularly in the public schools. So we attack and ridicule it. We blame math, not ourselves.

I admit math didn't come naturally for me. I struggled with it for many years. But in the sixth grade, several things clicked in my life, and one of them was math. From that point on, I enjoyed just about all of my math classes – expect maybe probability theory.

If Buffet, in his song, Math Suks, thinks algebra is "from some kind of a third dimension," he ought to check out probability theory. I swear, my sons will never take that course during the summer like I did. Instead of putting criminals in jail, we should make them concentrate on "Chebyshev polynomials" and "random walks" when it's 85° outside and their friends are swimming and playing softball every day.

That's one of the problems with math, by the way. It requires you to give something up, namely play time, which isn't to the liking of a growing segment of Americans today. Some of these less-than-ambitious people spend more time avoiding work than actually doing it. No wonder they don't like math.

Something else about math that frustrates a lot of "rightbrained" people is that it never lets you bend the rules. Math makes everyone play by the same rules, the same way, every time, without exception. This steadfastness flies in the face of our "feel-good" society, where people no longer even find it necessary to explain why they'll say something one day and do something else the next.

With math, you can rest assured that if "2+2=4" before you go to bed at night, it will be that way when you wake up in the morning. The "equals sign" is kind of like a promise. Once it's made, you can count on it. Maybe that's one of the reasons why math scores are so low these days. Too many children have learned the only thing they can count on is broken promises.

Another reason math is so hard to grasp for so many people is that it's too precise for their blurred thinking. Even the simplest arithmetic cuts like a sharp sword, leaving no middle ground. If you're calculating "2x3" and you come up with "5" or "7," for example, you're close – you may even be convinced you're right – but you're still wrong. And no amount of rationalizing or dancing on the issues is going to change that. With math, you're hot or you're not.

Granted, math may be rigid, but if it were anything else, we'd be in a lot of trouble. Imagine pumping 15 gallons of gas into your car on a morning when "15" means "3," and then heading out into the desert – without your sunblock. Or how about flying in a plane where everything from component fits to control signals depends on how the in-flight lunch tastes to the guy sitting next to you. As ridiculous as this sounds, the uncertainties of our world often hinge on feelings and moods that are no more controllable and every bit as trivial.

And that brings me to the quality I like most about math. Although math doesn't prevent us from failing, it's ready whenever we are to get up and try again. It will even help us figure out where we went wrong, and is just as eager to show us when we've got it right. In the meantime, as we grope for answers, math even provides us with "fudge factors" to help us get by with our partial and incomplete models and theories.

If I taught math, I'd tell the students about this quality first. I'd want them to know they don't have to be afraid of coming up with the wrong answer. Just keep your erasers handy, I'd say, and don't be too proud to use them. Although I wouldn't want anyone to intentionally make a mistake, I'd explain that, in my class, making and correcting mistakes is part of the learning process.

Larry Berardinis
lberardinis@penton.com