The Problem with Problems

| July 15, 2010

The problem with problems—math problems, word problems, the stock in trade of schoolwork—is not that they are not “real.” As if that distinction were un-problematic. Isn’t it that they are insufficiently playful? They are irrelevant, not because we can’t relate to them, but because they are not fantastic.

It is common enough to point out that the language on standardized tests is culturally biased. A cup and saucer is not just a cup and saucer. It is a shibboleth. As if that were not the point of tests. But should we not just as much lament the poor student who knows very well what the relationship between a cup and saucer is, and is thus harder pressed to avoid answering, complicit in his own boredom?

Poor obstacles impoverish us.

The search for obstacles—the need to impose them in their familiar guise of time and space—is part of the endless, baffled inquiry into the nature of the object. I know what something or someone is by finding out what comes between us.

—Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored

Only we should remember, in the case of school work, it is the teacher imposing their (poor) obstacles. What is it that they keep trying to understand?