Myth and Mantra of Mathematics

Myth and Mantra of Mathematics

Friday, November 26, 2021 12:02 am

Dr. Chris Anyokwu

By Chris Anyokwu

Everyone hates Mathematics very much like we all hate the Devil.  The Devil himself as sculpted by culture and passed down from generation to generation is a spooky creature complete with horns, dishevelled hair and black as night in complexion.  And he is monochromatically evil.  Thus, in the same vein, getting a secondary school student to understand Mathematics is simply analogous to a match-maker trying to hitch an innocent young girl and a hideous, fiendish ogre.  Such nuptial consummation would certainly involve a lot of sweat, tears and blood.  Such was the bitter experience of yours sincerely, growing up.  It was in Abudu, the Headquarters of Orhionmwon Local Government Area in Edo State (formerly Bendel State).

We were introduced to Mathematics in primary school in the 1970s by teachers who we dreaded.  Both the dread of the Mathematics teachers and our inherited fear of the subject had conspired to make us, many of us, flunk the course, over and over again.  Upon completion of secondary school, yours sincerely relocated from the countryside to the city, Lagos to be precise in the ’80s.  Mother had worked her hands to bones, trying to make money to pay for my extra-mural classes taken in order to pass Mathematics in WASCE/GCE, a prerequisite for university admission, regardless of the proposed course of study.


Long story short, after several attempts, yours sincerely was able to secure a credit pass (C6) in Mathematics and was able to proceed to the Great Ife to study English.  This anecdotal autobiographical excursus highlights the general crisis of cultural memory regarding Mathematics as a subject.  Most people hardly pass it at the first time of asking, it is were.  The reasons for this anomaly are not far-fetched.  Let us begin with the portrait of the Mathematics teacher.  Simply dressed almost to the point of sartorial asceticism, he or she clutches a Mathematics textbook, a packet of chalk (but nowadays, temple-markers) and the ubiquitous “stern” cane.  Furthermore, s/he tends to deliver his/her lessons in a rather brisk, almost militaristic manner like someone eating a piece of piping-hot yam.  The result is that the pop-eyed students who are the captive audience of the teacher-as-magician are left in the end more confused and disoriented than ever. Any student audacious enough to ask the teacher for clarification is mercilessly trounced with the dreaded unforgiving cane by the intemperate and irascible teacher.  Most of the time, s/he uses foul language and swear words on his/her wards and charges.  These wounding words, like branding tools, inflict deep and permanent mental-cum-psychological injuries on these impressionable youngsters.  They remain, thus, traumatised by the fear of and the terror for Mathematics.  As a consequence, subsequent encounters with the subject become a hit-or-miss or stumble-and-fall affair.

In traditional rural environments, Mathematics teachers were virtually gods among mere mortals.  Parents worshipped them; students quaked in their boots at the sight or the mention of the teacher’s name.  The fear of Mathematics (or the teacher of Mathematics) was the beginning of wisdom.  Cases of the “Tree of Books” plundering hen and chick were not uncommon as mother and daughter were too grateful to drink deep from the Pierian Spring.  What’s more, in urban environments, the widespread fear of Mathematics has equally given rise to a burgeoning and booming industry of extra-mural classes, some of which are held within school premises, others in rented enclosures.  Most times, the same teachers who handle the course in the school also do same at these after-school centres.  A sub-set of this phenomenon is the practice of what is known as “Home Lessons”.  Both trained and quack teachers feigning omniscience invade people’s privacy in the name of “doing lesson”, even in unholy hours.  Small wonder, incidences of abuse, crime, sexual predation and spying abound in this regard.  By the same token, the desperation to pass the subject in WASCE/GCE and NECO has led many students to involve themselves in examination fraud.  You hear of sharp practices and examination malpractice involving teachers, students, parents and school authorities, especially at so-called “Special Exam Centres” and in regular secondary schools.  Sadly, this unhealthy practice usually leads to the bastardisation of formal education and ruinous socialisation of the younger generation.

A Mathematics teacher

How did we get here?  Has it always been like this?  A bit of context is in order.  Humans, by nature, are insecure, hence the natural tendency to appropriate power and privilege.  And, as the saying goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is the King.  In this connection, in a benighted and blighted ecosystem of deregulated ignorance and “little knowledge” like ours, those blessed with a semblance of knowledge are wont to play God over their less-endowed counterparts.  Same with Mathematics teachers.  Since society places high store by the knowledge of Mathematics (which only few possess), Mathematics teachers and those who understand this academic subject tend to lord it over those deficient in the subject.  Thus, knowledge of Mathematics becomes something of a cult complete with passcodes, sign-language and other esoteric rituals.  As we all know, the occult or cults are not an all-comers affair.  Admittance into the charmed circle of the “ecclesia” requires and involves elaborate and complex series of initiation and induction ordeals, including, at times, cruel flagellation and branding with pieces of hot iron or metal projectiles.

The foregoing scenario logically informs the hauteur and hubris associated with Mathematics teachers and lecturers down the years.  Unsurprisingly, Math Olympiads and competitions are regularly organised for brainiacs and prodigies.  And this sets them apart from the common run.  Disappointingly, though, rather than passing down their special gnosis, these special breeds, hoard it like the Golden Fleece.  They deliberately make a fetish of it, thereby creating the impression that Mathematics is truly difficult to understand.  One’s inability to get a hang of it breeds in one an inferiority complex.  One lives with this self-inferiorisation for life.  One is consequently traumatised to one’s grave despite one’s apparent liveliness and Devil-may-care insouciance.

But Mathematics teachers and lecturers are not entirely at fault for this.  The rot usually starts from primary school where Arithmetic is usually poorly taught by endemically ill-motivated teachers.  The starry-eyed pupil is frightened early on into abandoning the spirit of healthy curiosity and adventure to settle for a pedagogical habit of rote; of impassive cramming in parrot-fashion: 2 x2 = 4; 3 x 3 = 9, on and on ad nauseam.  It is a sing-song of institutionalised cultural stupidity.  Crucially, therefore, the pupils’ poor grasp of the Multiplication Table inaugurates the chain-reaction of subsequent fumblings in the subject.  If, for instance, Primary One Mathematics was hard-going for the child, Primary Two Math is likely to be a disaster.  To be certain, Common Entrance Examination has to be “arranged” by both school authorities and parents for the pupil in order to gain admission to secondary school.  Then in secondary school, welcome to Hell a la Mathematics-Teachers-as-Devils!

This unfortunate situation has deleterious effects on society, as it is made to pay a stiff price for the fetishisation of Mathematics.  The myth of Mathematics as a difficult subject has redirected most to many unpropitious career paths, thereby forcing them into career trajectories they were originally not meant to pursue.  These people end up enduring rather than enjoying their professional lives as some kind of attritional ordeal.  The storied incompetence of most Mathematics teachers is, thus, testament to the longstanding, almost normative hortatory  and methodological limitations of some Educational sub-disciplines, which themselves have long capitulated to the blackmail and tyranny of tradition rather than resolutely facing up to the “blow” of change and innovation.

A mathematics class

Whilst Mathematics teachers in Primary, Secondary and Tertiary schools are enjoying the social prestige bestowed on them by virtue of their “special knowledge”, the rest of society is being left behind, not only here in Africa but the rest of the world.  Nigeria, for example, has for a long time been talking about diversifying her economy and pursuing the path of industrialisation.  Yet, she has remained an oil-based mono-cultural economy.  She has failed spectacularly to copy the steller example set by the likes of Singapore and other Asian Tigers.  The dread of Mathematics is pretty much hammered into the collective mind of our culture; our youth and children are systematically socialised to avoid the subject like a plague, and those who brave it, do so with fear and trembling.  Yet, Mathematics is the parent discipline in the Sciences, the foundation for scientific and technological advancement.  At the just-concluded Cop26 Climate Crisis Summit held in Glasgow, Scotland, US Special Climate Envoy, John Kerry reminded the world that climate crisis is not an eschatological superstition but it is “Physics, Math, Science”.

In civilised societies, annual budgetary allocations are made for research in Mathematics.  In Nigeria, right from Independence in 1960, how much is usually allocated to the education sector as a whole?  Not more than 8%! In a polity eternally afflicted with the absence of leadership at all levels [see Achebe, The Trouble with Nigeria], what is the fate of learning, research and innovation?  To be sure, in the last six years or so, the country has fallen into a deep slumber, the type suffered by the legendary Rip van Winkle.

Rip van Winkle

In the intervening years of slumber, the rest of the world has moved on, doing new and novel things, discovering innovative ways of interacting with the environment.  Yet in Nigeria, we are fossilised in Ozymandian time and frozen in a time-warp.   Here,

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity (W.B. Yeats).


What’s to be done?  There might be a need for teachers and lecturers of Mathematics to re-imagine their approach to their work, a change in teaching methodology is required.  In this regard, those in Educational Psychology and Administration, Guidance and Counselling need to redouble their efforts to deliver on the mandate of their disciplines.  While entering a caveat for some teachers and lecturers of Mathematics whose records are exemplary, we must, nevertheless, implore others in their ranks to turn over a new leaf and re-dedicate themselves to the ethics of their profession.  The reward for hard work will come here on earth when they least expect it.  Government, on its part, must encourage Mathematics teachers and lecturers in particular and teachers in general.  More than ever before, more funding is required for research and innovation, notably in Mathematical Sciences.  That being said, everything has to be done to make our children love Mathematics.


*Chris Anyokwu writes from the University of Lagos.

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One Comment

  • Donald Berrian says:

    Mathematics is “the language of science”. It is just a shorthand way of representing how different things are related. Algebra describes calculations and makes it much easier to determine how to make them, especially compared to the dreaded “word problems” that try to say the same thing but use common languages. Designing anything requires calculating sizes, shapes, etc. to avoid a trial and error process that could go on forever.

    A good teacher knows several ways of explaining anything and that helps. I have seen several attempts to improve math instruction including “the new math” and “common core” and they were all dismal failures. All the alternatives have been tried for centuries and failed.

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