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The Right Answer

The Right Answer
Published on Apr 11, 2023.

The Game of Tests is very simple. They ask questions, and you give answers. There is a particular answer they have in their minds, and if you guess it right, you get the points.

The point of the Game is to get the Right Answer.

The Right Answer is a fundamental concept that permeates almost every aspect of our lives. It reinforces the hierarchies we live under. It guides us toward our life choices. It even colors our political perspective. We believe in Right Answers well after our days in school are over. We just turn it into the Right Job, the Right Spouse, the Right Life, the Right Political Party.

It begins in school, where the teacher has the Right Answer in her head and you must guess it. Sometimes, especially early on, this is blatant. “And what does this mean, children?” Kids shout out guesses until one of them hits home. “That’s right!” The teacher perks up, her authority figure sending strong signals of social validation to our little primate minds.

Or, “what’s the capital of Peru?” on a test. Red slashes streak across the page, taking a student’s nose and burying them in their mistakes. Meanwhile, full points make you feel whole.

In so-called open-ended questions, the kind you see as you grow up, they say there is no Right Answer. There is, but it’s just metastasized. It’s taken its first step to growing up into the monster that plagues our adult lives. Because with open-ended answers, of the standard 5-paragraph variety, there is no specific Right Answer but there is the Right Way to give an answer. There is a Right Way to construct a paragraph, or an essay. There is a Right Way – the inverted pyramid – to express a thesis. And, above all, there is a Right Way to sound while you’re giving the answer.

The Right Answer still exists – it’s just moved from being about substance to style. A little later, by the time we get to college, we’ll be smart about this and call it “the art of bullshit” but we’ll play along anyway, miming the dance even as we chuckle. By the time we’re adults, we’re no longer laughing. The Art of Bullshit has now become the very real skill of “Managing Optics,” of making the right impressions on the right people, especially your corporate superiors.

Of course, to the degree that education is transmission of knowledge, it must be about at least some Right Answers. What would happen if everyone read the letter ‘e’ differently? It would defeat the entire purpose of written communication.

But the Right Answer has taken on a much more prominent role, because of a single subject. The one that sits atop the hierarchy of subjects, its undisputed king, the subject of geniuses and brilliance, in whose image all the other subjects are taught.


Math holds a special place in modern education. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the US or Russia or China or India. Math is king in all the lands.

The supremacy of math over the other subjects is not spoken of outright. No one says “math matters more, much more, than all the rest”. Not officially at least. But the cues are there. The kids who do very well in art or English – who show a real aptitude there – are considered creative, precocious even. But if you’re good at math, you’re a genius.

That word – “genius” – has ruined more lives that we’ve ever bothered to count. It’s this alluring prize from far away, but appears more and more toxic the closer you get. When you’re right up against it, when it’s the phrase that’s applied to you over and over, its toxic sludge dripping through your hair, soaking your clothes, you can’t even stand hearing it.

Why is it that kids who are good at math are geniuses but kids who are only good at English are creative? What is it about math that leads us to regard it as somehow special, electives above all the rest?

Some might say because it’s hard. What exactly does that mean, for something to be hard? In some sense, language is hard. We’ve built machines that can do math with frightening ease, but they still can’t speak with the fluency of even the average 7-year-old. Natural language is a known hard problem in artificial intelligence, much harder than having a computer drive a car or recognize the things in a picture.

Yet, language is easy. Almost every human child free of developmental disabilities learns to speak. It is a natural human ability.

This, then, is the central distinction. Language is easy because it comes naturally to human beings. Math is hard because it does not. To work with math, the human mind needs to contort itself. It has to call upon its rational half, exercise it beyond its natural development, deploy it in entirely unnatural ways.

If math were a sport activity, it might be the art of pitching a baseball – an action that is so unnatural to do over and over again that pitchers must take a break of several days for every game they pitch.

There are lots of things that are unnatural and difficult for humans to do. Why do we hold math in such high esteem?

It wasn’t always this way. In Ancient Greece, math was but one part of the subject of philosophy which reigned supreme then. In the religious Middle Ages, math lost almost all popularity. There wasn’t much bout it that would help the layman understand how to get into Heaven.

Then the Enlightenment came along and the Scientific Revolution, which considered the beauty of math a proof of God. Newton, when he was not deriving calculus, was busy using math to try to decipher the secrets of the Bible (he didn’t succeed). To many people at the time of the 17th & 18th centuries, math was not an explanatory force that rivaled the existence of a Creator God, but rather its tool, the means by which He expressed his intentions to the world. This was best captured in the image of God as a clockmaker, which math as the language of the clock.

A weird thing happened then, in the 19th century. Science led to industrialization and man, surrounded by his incredibly powerful new toys and tools, forgot about god. He began to consider himself a god, one with the same tool of math as Newton’s God, but used to decipher the secrets of an impersonal universe for his own, technological purposes.

Math had done a full 180 from a thing of art and beauty, a study of abstract patterns and relationships to a very practical skill with very practical results. Where number theory captured the imagination of the 18th century, with elegant proofs and intuitive beliefs turned to hypotheses, for the late 19th century, math was primarily about the techniques used to solve the kinds of equations that come up in engineering – optimization problems, geometry and trigonometry, calculus.

The purpose of math moved far from the discovery of the beautiful properties of numbers to the much more mundane – the prediction of what you need to do to build technologies people can use. To build trains and bridges, cables and generators, guns and bombs, and eventually, computers and software.

Math became about results, not creativity. And in that transformation, and the education system it spawned, emerged the holy idol of the Right Answer.