Math
for Morons. That’s what we called the one math class I took at IU
Bloomington around 1975.
The Department of Mathematics
didn’t call it that, of course. And we weren’t really morons—just
a bunch of writers, singers, artists, actors (one student went on to play roles
on “Thirtysomething” and “Sisters”), and the odd English
major. All scared to death of math.
The professor, whose name I’ve long forgotten, did his level best. But let’s be honest, we were there to get the credit. If throwing dice was teaching us anything useful for later life, we didn’t realize it then.
My math anxiety came back full force when IU Bloomington’s chair of mathematics, Dan Maki, graciously agreed to serve as guest editor for this issue.
What was I thinking?
I can figure the gratuity on a dinner for four, but my numeracy stops about there. My engineerhusband regularly gapes at me in disbelief when I explain how I calculate things. I haven’t looked a real math problem in the eye since highschool geometry. How in the world was I going to talk to someone about, say, partial differential equations?
A lot of us in the United States feel this kind of panic, fear, anxiety, even revulsion, when it comes to the numbers. So much so, in fact, that when you scan the Web, “reducing math anxiety” looks like an industry unto itself. Just consider a few of the book titles: Math for Dummies, Math the Easy Way, Mathematics Made Simple.
Experts call math anxiety an emotional response or reaction. Sheila Tobias, author of Overcoming Math Anxiety, says math anxiety is “not the result of a failure of intellect, but rather of nerve.” Negative associations trigger “emotional static” when the mathaverse among us face numbers, she says, causing tension, panic, an inability to think.
There’s no single source for our anxiety. It may spring from experiences of public embarrassment, parental disapproval, peer pressure, learnbyrote teaching that made math a chore, or a mix of these. I remember the humiliation of comparing myself to highschool friends for whom math “came easy.” A 25yearold woman I know liked highschool math and was set to pursue math in college until, she says, “I got burned by a bad course and professor and lost all interest.”
Cora
Barbara Hennel, Indiana University's first mathematics Ph.D. graduate,
in 1912.

Gender certainly figures into the math anxiety equation. Numbers belong to guys, our culture tells us. My 25yearold acquaintance remembers, “It was always acceptable in high school for otherwise intelligent girls to say, ‘Oh, I’m bad at math’ and leave it at that.” (Imagine them saying “Oh, I’m bad at reading.”) Girls’ discouragement with math seems to hit hardest in the vulnerable high school years. According to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, by 12th grade the gender gap clearly favors males when it comes to higher math. (Chalk one up, then, for Cora Barbara Hennel, who received Indiana University’s very first mathematics doctorate in 1912.)
Gender stereotypes aren’t the
only factor. In the United States, as compared with countries such as Singapore,
Korea, Japan, Germany, or Belgium, math has a bad image problem. Math types
are . . . well . . . you know . . . nerdy and weird. It’s just uncool to
study math. This image trips up the performance of both genders in the United
States. According to the TIMSS study, our 12thgraders rank among the lowest
of all, worldwide, in mathematics performance.
Again, the social stigma kicks in
as kids grow older. The TIMSS study found that U.S. fourthgraders were above
the international scoring average in math. One fourthgrader I know says math
is his favorite because “I like learning new ways to do it.” He especially
likes doing “times with twodigit numbers, which is pretty hard.”
The top math student in his class, he reports, is a girl: “Every time we
have a problem, she just knows the answer right away.”
The precipitous slide from a fourthgrader’s joy in doing twodigit times
to the lowest rungs of 12thgraders is strong proof that, when it comes to math
in America, we’ve badly miscalculated.
In 2000, the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the
21st Century, headed by former
senator and astronaut John Glenn, released a report called Before It’s
Too Late. “In an age now driven by the relentless necessity of scientific
and technological advance, the current preparation U.S. students receive in
mathematics and science is, in a word, unacceptable,” the report says.
“America’s students must improve if they are to succeed in today’s
world and if the United States is to stay competitive in an integrated global
economy.”
Clearly, one answer to America’s math problem is better primary, secondary, and undergraduate teaching, which makes projects such as the IU Center for Mathematics Education and its Indiana Mathematics Initiative, as well as IU’s Mathematics Throughout the Curriculum project, particularly exciting.
But all of us mathanxious types need an attitude adjustment. For all its abstractness, mathematics is a very human enterprise. It is carried out not by geeks but by people who play basketball at the gym, walk to school with their children, work in their gardens, and describe their research with humor and passion.
So if a Math for Morons class is all you’ve got under your belt, take a deep breath, relax, and read on. You may just figure out what those dice were all about. —L. B.