Pop Culture Doesn’t Do Math Any Favors
The Economic and Social Research Council of England has recently come out with some interesting (if unsurprising) information on why British students do not choose to study mathematics: they believe that it is an irrelevant field dominated by old white middle-class men, and also it’s geeky. The former is a problem because anyone who is not white, male, middle class or who plans never to become old (and what young person does, really?) may feel uncomfortable entering the field without a clearly defined peer group. The second reason is a problem because while it’s okay to be educated, you have to be cool about it too.
This is a problem in the United States as well: since the end of the Cold War the numbers of students studying “hard” sciences and math have quickly declined. The numbers are even more concerning if you look only at home-grown students, not immigrants. Many, many bright math students from Eastern Europe and particularly Russia have masked the lowered levels of math graduate students in the United States, who are almost certainly a result of lowered educational standards at the primary level. (The recent scandal in Tacoma over math WASL scores is a great example: in short, about half of the students who take it here do not pass the math section, and so the initial response was to lower the math standards. Brilliant. Clearly. I’m not sure of the current discussion surrounding it, though I hope they came up with a better idea than dumbing it down.) Now that things are looking up in that region of the world, more Eastern Europeans are choosing to study in their home countries, leaving us even worse off.
Many students struggle to see the point of math. I empathize with that. My understanding of math’s usefulness has come entirely from my encounters with it in college, not in high school. I think we watched a documentary on the mathematician who solved Fermat’s Last Theorem, but that was so abstract that I did not walk away from the class thinking, “Wow, math applies to my life so much!” That was pretty much it as far as teaching us relevance. If students do not see the relevance of a subject they will be much less likely to study it – especially in comparison with other subjects like, say, Philosophy or English, whose benefits are indirect. And math is difficult at times (though, I’ve found, less than it is hyped to be). So if a student has to choose between two fields, and the perception is that both are unlikely to be useful in getting a job/daily life, the average student will probably go for the easier subject.
Plus, if someone studies Shakespeare, they can totally whip out pretentious references to Richard III and people will generally allow it. Because that’s our cultural heritage, you know. But if a math person tries to do the same, they will get shunned for being a jerk and without social skills even though they are pulling the exact same arrogant move as the Shakespearean scholar.
England’s educational system also requires students to know what they want to study much earlier than the US educational system. If I had wanted, I could have delayed declaring a major until this fall, when I will be almost 21. In contrast students in England must declare their course of study – which they cannot change without great difficulty – at age 16 or so. This is a time when being uncool is the most painful thing in the world, and as we all know, pop culture mercilessly stereotypes the number crunchers. Teenagers have the double problem of being extremely hard on each other when enforcing social boundaries (they are more dangerous versions of that six year old bully who punched you for wearing glasses in kindergarten) and being very unwilling to go against group culture.
Emotional maturity has something to do with it too; wanting to stick with a field that can be frustrating is a skill that develops over time. I know that if I asked my 16-year-old self what I would study, she would not have chosen to get a Bachelor’s of Science in Economics. Although, again, that is partially the fault of the educational system: for reasons that were never clear to me I was put on the “not smart” math track, which went slower, and I never took Calculus in high school. Therefore I didn’t think I was “qualified” or “smart enough” to take higher level mathematics.