Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stigmatizing Math

There was an interesting article in the New York Times (apologies for the required registration, bugmenot has logins) regarding math education in the United States and math culture, compared to other countries. It suggested there are a few problems with the way math is viewed:

  • Math is viewed as being an "elite" subject, where some people are simply good at it, and other people simply aren't, rather than as a skill everyone should have which requires effort to perfect. Everyone plays sports and is encouraged for trying no matter how well they do starting out, but people who have a hard time in math decide it's just not for them
  • Math reaps few social rewards at a young age and can even face social stigma. The arts and athletics have support communities to encourage people to develop those skills and there's a culture based around valuing exceptional effort in those areas. But being good at math, simply put, rarely makes you popular
  • Math skills are stereotyped as being exclusive to certain types of people, Asians and nerds. A large percentage of successful math students in the US are coming from backgrounds and cultures that value math more highly and view it as an accessible skill. Many people, and young women in particular gauge their interest in math based upon the types of people they see being interested in it, and American women have even less of an interest in mathematics than their international peers.
  • Mathematics, the sciences, and academics in general get very little media attention compared to the arts or athletics, the entertainment industries. Arts and athletics are often "lottery" fields where everyone wants to get in but only a handful are able to make it, and far more people spend their lives trying to get in and become multimillion dollar superstars than actually make it. Media attention is a finite resource, there's only so much of it to go around, in contrast to potentially unlimited advances that might be able to be made in other fields. But the bottom line is that our culture celebrates the few and the lucky who exhibit talent in a few very visible areas, while a lot of the things done to benefit society as a whole without garnering its attention meet very little accolades.
And one point that I've made myself is that Math is greatly misunderstood. Math is not number-crunching. Computers can crunch numbers. Math is about creativity, insight, and
 reasoning skills. The basics of Math and logic inform my understanding of probability, economics, human nature, and any number of other topics. Math is fundamental to everything, not as an exercise in solving particular types of problems but as an exercise in thinking and abstraction, formalizing a system into precise terms. Mathematics is the poetry with which God has written the universe.

One criticism I've heard related to this is the state of math education. A lot of the people who end up teaching math at an early level primarily studied education and aren't enthusiastic about their subject. Math is often viewed as another exercise in memorization and rote repetition rather than an elegant system of interrelated rules of logic which all build on each other. And even for myself, I failed to see the purpose to a lot of the math I was doing until I began working with its applications and realized I could tackle almost any problem with the right mathematical approach.

I place a lot of value on the arts myself, and the importance of writing and clear expression. But those disciplines have long-running traditions and are embedded in our culture in a way that the importance of mathematics is not. Math is precise, unambiguous, and elegant in a way that few other subjects are, and while there are plenty of other valuable pursuits to forming a well-rounded character, I'm convinced that the significance and importance of Math remains underemphasized in our culture.

(follow-up, the NYT had a recent article about the widening gap in computer science enrollment after years in which enrollment has grown closer in other subjects, they credit the perception of geek and gaming culture as being exclusively male)