Class Notes

In a course we were asked to submit a write up describing a symbol important to one. I have no energy right now to explain the detail the word “symbol here”. But I wanted to post this write up on blog and I have linked a bit with theory which might give some clue to the profound meaning of “symbol”. I have written it in a rush as there is just too much to do these days with too little time, and also this wasn’t a graded assignment. :D So ignore the bad sentence formations at places. Ofcourse, there is a lot to write in this regard. This is perhaps the phase I of 2-3 phases (experienced so far).

“A symbol that is important to me.”

The only subject I recall being taught seriously to me as a child by my parents and elder siblings was Mathematics. Science came in much later and in a different context. Math for me represented “important” stuff in school. This was conveyed to me through different expressions. My interpretation from early childhood experiences was that I do one good (that is doing well in math) I can do all the rest bad (all my mistakes would be forgiven). This was a very convenient solution and negotiation with adult world. In all the classes I would do poorly in every subject while topping in math and at home they would still pat my back!

After primary classes, internal dialogues started playing another role. Math was no more limited as only a ticket to escape from punishment. I would help classmates to solve problems and re-live the experience of being the first one to give the answer which was never wrong. This process of “going back over experience, a way of working upon our representation of events” (Britton 1971) now attached a new meaning to the old symbol. Math was the power to win respect. Everyone around me believed me to be some sort of genius, while only I knew the reality. My parents wished me to be a genius. And so did I. The culture in middle class families is so that there is strong symbol attached to the words like “intelligence” and “genius”. They have shared meanings in the culture. For instance in my case, attaching these words to my personality when I was able to perform in school math better than others was a phenomenon which Edward Sapir describes as: “language is primarily a vocal actualization of the tendency to see realities symbolically”. The fact that one person can solve problem faster and more accurately than other was symbolized by such terms.

Yet, difference in personal experiences result in difference of how an individual symbolizes these terms for themselves. For instance I was always aware of the time when someone called me intelligent that I had to prove it to myself that I was really one and of the distinction between me and those who are not called “intelligent”. This was language created a model of the world in my mind in which there was a distinction between those who are called “intelligent” and those who are not; and in which group does one exist.

In order to justify the term “intelligent” I would do more Math (including topics outside syllabus). I would actually tell myself “I love Math”. This reinforced the idea that I deserved to be called intelligent, since I loved Math more than others. Math was the symbol that I was different from others in terms of being superior. It was the symbol of a secret that I had to keep close to myself to keep the status quo alive. It was the symbol of the struggle to prove to myself that I deserved to be superior.


One thought on “Class Notes

  1. Wake county School District will kill to get a formula to instill this kind of symbolism in the current crop. Math scores are abysmal here.

    Your example is other extreme, perhaps. I guess every one of us would like to believe (is it a need?) that there is something they are better at. Or is there a need to find something that we really like doing? Are these two needs the same? Can we really like doing something if we are not good at it (eventually)? Can we be really good at something without enjoying the experience?

    “language is primarily a vocal actualization of the tendency to see realities symbolically” – nice aphorism, considering that math can be enjoyed with or without symbols :)


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