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Why Is It Socially Acceptable to Be Bad at Math?

Perhaps it doesn't have to be this way.

"I know for me, I'm a lawyer because I was bad at [science and math]. [Laughter.] All lawyers in the room, you know it's true. We can't add and subtract, so we argue. [Laughter.]"

Like the person quoted above, I'll be the first to admit that my math skills are worse than when I was in the seventh grade. That's probably why I ended up as a psychologist rather than a mathematician. However, I don't think being willing to admit you are bad at math is limited to lawyers and psychologists; it's pretty much everyone. In fact, I've noticed that it's quite socially acceptable to say, "I'm not good at math." On the other hand, I would never admit that I was bad at reading because, well, that would just make me look really stupid.

This clearly raises the question: Why is it socially acceptable to say that you're bad at math but not socially acceptable to say you're bad at reading?

I've emphasized the importance of both math literacy and math excellence in my post, "Is This How to Fix Our Math Education?" However, I've come to realize that we probably need a critical mass of the American population to be math literate precisely so that America as a whole will really begin to support math excellence.

It is socially acceptable to be bad at math in our country. Perhaps it wasn't always this way. And perhaps it doesn't have to be this way. I think that the first step we need to take as a society is to make it socially unacceptable to be bad at math just like it's socially unacceptable to be bad at reading.

And perhaps one litmus test of this is the following scenario. We are watching the popular show Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? and the topic is basic geometry. Let's say the grown contestant has to peek at the answer of the fifth grader standing next to him.

When we don't find it funny, maybe then it means as a society we've started to value the importance of being math literate.

And in case you were wondering, the initial quote was from the first lady of the United States of America when she was giving a speech at the National Science Foundation stressing the importance of math and science education for girls.1

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai



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