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Turns Out, You’re Not Bad at Math, You’re Just Not Trying

bad at mathI am totally that person Miles Kimball and Noah Smith are making fun of in the opening line of a piece on The Atlantic that starts, “I’m not a math person.” I’m an actor, a comedian, a writer; I’m not good at math. That’s how I’ve always understood myself, anyway. But I’m also a decent musician, which means that I must have some ability to process mathematics, if I can understand quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. An old friend of mine who was a double major in math and music in college would tell anyone who gave her a puzzled look about that combo, “Math and music have a lot in common.”

So it turns out, I’m not inherently bad at math, I’ve just never tried to be that good at it. According to Kimball and Smith, it’s important that parents like me decide quickly that we are “math people,” because the “pernicious myth” of “inborn genetic math ability” is harming underprivileged children. “For high-school math,” they say, “inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.” That may be true. I struggled with high school math a bit, not because I’m a dum-dum, but because I have a hard time focusing when it comes to equations. Arithmetic is not a language I’m fluent in. But I worked hard with a favorite teacher to really master sophomore year algebra, and then I said goodbye to math. I never took calculus, I never took physics (yes, I know that’s a science). I’m not an engineer, and I don’t really understand technical things that well (I’m convinced microwaves run on magic), but I think I probably understand a lot of things about the human condition in a more profound way than a scientist or mathematician might. Or maybe not. But I can freestyle rap, so. I’m good.

While reading Kimball and Smith’s piece, I really wanted to get behind their message, which is, essentially, if you believe you can be good at something, you can be good at that thing. I’m with them up until there, when they add the caveat, “that math is the best place to start.” They think math is essential because Americans are missing out on great job opportunities in a world with ever-expanding technical operations, and I get why – as “math people” – they would feel that way. But as an artist, I worry about two men who are obsessed with Americans studying as hard as the Japanese do in order to get STEM jobs when I’m more inclined to agree with these commenters on their piece, who wrote:

John MC
But then what? Japan is in a 20 year recession, South Korean college graduates for the most part get to look to unemployment and underpay. These countries spend huge amounts of time teaching to the test and such and then these students after graduating college are no better off than the rest of us U.S. college graduates but they sure do great at taking tests.

Van Basten
Well, you get an additional combo of premature stress issues and weak social skills! And just for free, they’ll thrown [sic] in the lack of life balance and no life prize pack. Operators are ready at the phones to take your call.

I think maybe a better approach to dealing with America’s STEM crisis is to encourage young children from pre-school onward to believe that they’re all inherently capable of excelling academically in a well-rounded way and to encourage them to find a love of math and science by making those subjects interesting and fun, no matter what their ultimate career path will be. It shouldn’t be difficult to nudge those who show great aptitude in math and science into engineering and technology careers, since those are lucrative fields. But I find the idea of forcing all children to become droids simply because other countries rank higher than we do in math and science a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, and one that won’t really solve America’s education crisis. If we really want our children to become lifelong learners and to fully participate in their education in a way that’s meaningful, we have to create a culture that supports inquiry and exploration. Forcing high-level mathematics down everyone’s throats sounds like the antithesis of that.

As Kimball and Smith acknowledge in their piece, there is an argument against teaching math, too, and not just from Andrew Hacker of The New York Times. A 1929 study shows that “kids who received just one year of arithmetic, in sixth grade, performed at least as well on standard calculations and much better on story problems than kids who had received several years of arithmetic training,” according to Peter Gray of Psychology Today. “This was all the more remarkable because of the fact that those who received just one year of training were from the poorest neighborhoods–the neighborhoods that had previously produced the poorest test results,” he notes. So much for Kimball and Smith’s argument about underprivileged children needing more math.

Gray agrees with Kimball and Smith about one thing, though: that most people are “math phobic.” He writes:

They, after all, are themselves products of the school system, and one thing the school system does well is to generate a lasting fear and loathing of mathematics in most people who pass through it. No matter what textbooks or worksheets or lesson plans the higher-ups devise for them, the teachers teach math by rote, in the only way they can, and they just pray that no smart-alec student asks them a question such as “Why do we do it that way?” or “What good is this?” The students, of course, pick up on their teachers’ fear, and they learn not to ask or even to think about such questions. They learn to be dumb. They learn, as Benezet would have put it, that a math-schooled mind is a chloroformed mind.

Yes, exactly. Sure, we must teach math, because in addition to preparing those with scientific minds for STEM careers, it has practical applications for everyone. Not to mention the fact that math can be pleasantly mentally stimulating in the way any puzzle game is. But to suggest that every American child should aim to process high-level math is absurd. Kimball and Smith are forgetting the old, worn-out wisdom, “To each his own.” And as Gray notes, if we sour kids on math too early by shoving it by rote down their throats, we could be dissuading those who might otherwise flourish in math from pursuing the subject. That’s not that difficult to add up.

Photo credit: iStock

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