Fighting math-phobia in America

The president of Barnard College offers three suggestions for making math more enticing and relevant for Americans:

First, we can work to bring math to those who might shy away from it. Requiring that all students take courses that push them to think empirically with data, regardless of major, is one such approach. At Barnard — a college long known for its writers and dancers — empirical reasoning requirements are built into our core curriculum. And, for those who struggle to meet the demands of data-heavy classes, we provide access (via help rooms) to tutors who focus on diminishing a student’s belief that they “just aren’t good at math.”

Second, employers should encourage applications from and be open to having students with diverse educational interests in their STEM-related internships. Don’t only seek out the computer science majors. This means potentially taking a student who doesn’t come with all the computation chops in hand but does have a good attitude and a willingness to learn. More often than not, such opportunities will surprise both intern and employee. When bright students are given opportunities to tackle problems head on and learn how to work with and manipulate data to address them, even those anxious about math tend to find meaning in what they are doing and succeed. STEM internships also allow students to connect with senior leaders who might have had to overcome a similar experience of questioning their mathematical or computational skills…

Finally, we need to reject the social acceptability of being bad at math. Think about it: You don’t hear highly intelligent people proclaiming that they can’t read, but you do hear many of these same individuals talking about “not being a math person.” When we echo negative sentiments like that to ourselves and each other, we perpetuate a myth that increases overall levels of math phobia. When students reject math, they pigeonhole themselves into certain jobs and career paths, foregoing others only because they can’t imagine doing more computational work. Many people think math ability is an immutable trait, but evidence clearly shows this is a subject in which we can all learn and succeed.

Fighting innumeracy – an inability to use or understand numbers – is a worthwhile goal. I like the efforts suggested above though I worry a bit if they are tied too heavily to jobs and national competitiveness. These goals can veer toward efficiency and utilitarianism rather than more tangible results like better understanding of and interaction society and self. Fighting stigma is going to be hard by invoking more pressure – the US is falling behind! your future career is on the line! – rather than showing how numbers can help people.

This is why I would be in favor of more statistics training for students at all levels. The math required to do statistics can be tailored to different levels, statistical tests, and subjects. The basic knowledge can be helpful in all sorts of areas citizens run into: interpreting reports on surveys and polls, calculating odds and risks (including in finances and sports), and understanding research results. The math does not have to be complicated and instruction can address understanding where statistics come from and how they can be used.

I wonder how much of this might also be connected to the complicated relationship Americans have with expertise and advanced degrees. Think of the typical Hollywood scene of a genius at work: do they look crazy or unusual? Think about presidential candidates: do Americans want people with experience and knowledge or someone they can identify with and have dinner with? Math, in being unknowable to people of average intelligence, may be connected to those smart eccentrics who are necessary for helping society progress but not necessarily the people you would want to be or hang out with.

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