Math Is Hard

Image stolen from

Greetings from Liberty airport in Newark, New Jersey, where I am about to return to Ottawa after an unexpectedly expensive weekend in New York. Unseen flight change fees, hours-long delays, the need to hire pricey limousines, the destruction of three umbrellas in the rain storm, and now the foolish loss of my hat, scarf and gloves has rendered this particular voyage well into the red.

Anyway, I just bought my “breakfast” (at 2pm), a Caesar wrap, at one of those overpriced kiosks by the departure gates. Total price: $7.48. Wishing to rid myself of US change before returning to Canada, I gave the fellow $10.48. He said, “that didn’t really help; you’re still getting more change”, and tried to give me $1.30 back.

I stared at him for a couple of seconds, then explained. “The bill was $7.48. I gave you $10.48.”

“Oh,” he said, taking back the $1.30 and giving me two one-dollar bills instead.

At that point, I reasoned that the amusement I experienced was totally worth the $1 still owing to me, not to mention having one’s stereotypes of the US education system confirmed. So I smiled to myself and moved on.

Then I walked to the kiosk next door, a Starbucks, and ordered a grande Americano, my standard airport drink of choice. The post-tax price came to $2.51, allowing to get rid of more unwanted coins. I handed over two dollar bills, two quarters and a penny, and waited for my coffee.

The woman examined my money several times, with a puzzled look on her face, before finally returning one dollar to me.


At that point, I could not hide the amusement from my face. Bilked of a dollar by one proprietor, and given an extra one by the next, I came out even. But it does make me wonder how ledgers ever manage to add up.

I know that there’s a good chance the two service people today might have been having a bad day. It’s Sunday, after all, and we’re all hung over, myself included. So what I’m going to say next is not necessarily directed at these specific two individuals, but rather at the seemingly growing trend of declining math and langauge skills across all levels of North American (yes, Canada, I’m looking at you, too!) society, and the concordant comfort with said decline.

Frankly, I’m tired of people shrugging off their laxity with a giggle and a coy, self-explanatory, “I’m not good at math.” We math types (I trained to be a high school math teacher) are fond of saying that no one would ever say proudly, “I’m not good at language,” so we should not tolerate that same attitude with respect to numeracy.

But, sadly, we’ve indeed reached a point where there is no longer any shame in eschewing basic literacy skills, too. The anti-education, anti-intellectual movement is, in many ways, an epidemic. There is no longer shame in ignorance, yet somehow there is shame in brandishing knowledge. It’s cool to be a know-nothing braggart, but uncool to be a well-informed Poindexter.

So now when someone frakks up my change, I feel quite justified in smirking visibly, because I’m quite tired of pretending that “oh, that’s okay; it’s only math, and math is hard.”

I know that my amusement is probably viewed by some of you as elitist snobbery. But when and how did it become snobbery to expect basic math skills on the part of service providers, especially providers who are handling my money? I’m sure I’d get the same response if I were to smirk at an official’s brutal mishandling of my beloved English language.

How did we get to a point in society where I am the bad guy for expecting basic literacy and numeracy skills on the part of North Americans who’ve benefitted from years of state-financed public education? Why do we feel compelled to tolerate –nay, celebrate!– the intellectual laziness of others?

So if any of my students are reading this –and I know you are!– keep in mind the mood I will be in when I mark your upcoming papers and exams! Intellectual laziness will no longer be tolerated. It may, in the end, affect your chances of landing that choice Starbucks job at the Newark airport after you finish your degree. And we can’t be having that.