Yesterday, I did something terrifying. Or, more accurately, something that should have been terrifying but was instead an overwhelmingly positive experience. I attended a math talk hosted by the Fields Institute. I am not a Math major.
Now, before you stop reading, I promise that:
(1) this post is not actually about math, and
(2) there will not be a test at the end.
Before I begin, though, I should admit that my background is what some would call a “nerdy” discipline. I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty with a few equations here and there. I’ve taken enough math courses at this point that long ago should have ended my occasional, all-encompassing bouts of sheer panic when someone talks about higher-level mathematics.
I know what words like “manifold” and “combinatorial” mean. I know that infinity comes in many sizes! So, what exactly am I so afraid of?
The thing is, we all have our own beliefs and deities. I happen to bow down to the “almighty GPA”. As absurd as this is, I understand and have to accept that this one little number sometimes has a disproportionately large say in important things – like my suitability for a particular graduate school, or, in the words of so many parents and guidance counselors before me, “my future”.
The problem is that sometimes, the almighty GPA might lead us to be risk-averse. After all, whether we take a graduate-level seminar in quantum mechanics, or just a 200-level “rocks for jocks” course, “success” is defined in the same way – grade point average. (I know that many lifeatuoft readers are currently wondering how I am able to read their minds.) It can be easy to forget that the whole reason that most of us came to university in the first place was to see what we’re truly capable of. It’s sometimes even harder to find ways of seeking new challenges that don’t have dire consequences for failure.
I will confess, somewhat ashamedly, that over the summer I dropped a math course that I could certainly have passed because I didn’t think that I could get an ‘A’ in it the first time around. There are at least two other courses (and perhaps an entire program) that I might have loved but have saved “to do when I’m 30,” because I can’t justify to myself the radical academic risk that pushing myself this far outside of my comfort zone would entail. So what’s my point?
The talk that I attended was fascinating. Undergraduates and professors; artists and mathematicians, side by side. Why did this work? In this particular case, it worked because the lecturer was a brilliant man who knew how to speak to an audience at multiple levels of analysis. More importantly and perhaps relatedly, however, it worked because we were free to learn, to take what we could from the talk, and to leave the rest behind. In most university courses, we tend not to have such a luxury.
No one would have minded if I went to the talk, decided it was all Greek to me, and politely doodled on the corner of my notebook at the back of the room until it ended. No one was going to take any precious decimal points away from me if I decided to test my boundaries. It’s in moments like these that we’re free to truly learn for understanding, and in the words of Spinoza, “to understand is to be free.”
I left the talk with a renewed love of mathematics. Crucially, I left the talk with a greater confidence in my own ability to take risks, reason, and understand. I was given the space to grow without fear of punishment – and somewhat ironically, in doing so, I may just be a better student the next time I do something that “counts for marks”.