We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Going back to the post I mentioned previously, the one in which Scott McLeod describes his experience in taking the ACT again at age 44, I was struck by one paragraph in the section titled ‘Concluding Thoughts’. I quote it here in its entirety:

  • You’re so brave! I was struck by the sheer number of comments that Jason and I received that expressed disbelief that we would do something like this. Typical statements included variations of ‘You’re so brave! I could never do that!’ and ‘You’re willing to report your score publicly? Really?’ and ‘There’s no way in hell I’d ever take that exam again!’ and so on. I’m still mulling over what it says about us, our schools, and our society when we’re willing and even eager to have our children submit to experiences that we’re not willing to engage in ourselves as adults.”

I for one, I am not mulling over it – to me the answer is clear – we, as a society, do not value math, we as a society think it’s understandable not to do well in math. Time and again, I heard parents at back-to-school night say something like “Well, of course, I wasn’t very good in math either…”, or “I can’t help him/her at home because math has never been my strong suit…” These parents “mean well feebly”. Their sentiments are not expressions of regret; they are matter of fact expressions with the undertone of “of course you understand…”.

Exactly what am I supposed to understand?  That it is normal not to know math? That not doing well in math is a genetic trait? That when a subject is ‘too hard’ we should make allowances for it?

When the unspoken undertone at home is that it is somehow acceptable to have trouble with math, then no wonder our students are not very hungry to excel in the subject and do not persist when encountering difficulties.

In Asia and in Europe, a student who excels in math is looked upon with respect and is somebody to be emulated, in the US s/he is looked upon as a curiosity, a freakish being. This is a fundamental cultural difference and it directly influences everything else related to teaching math: the caliber of people going into the profession, the expectations we have of our students and the caliber of the courses we teach.

All the efforts and ingenuity of the many enthusiastic teachers I see in the blogosphere will have only a marginal impact until we have kids wanting to excel in math as much as they now want to excel in sports. Of course, the larger issue is that of respect for academic excellence in general and that goes deeper into our national psyche.


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