Indiana University  Research & Creative Activity Spring 2002 • Volume XXIV Number 3

Editor's Notes

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 engineer-husband 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 high-school 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 math-averse 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, learn-by-rote teaching that made math a chore, or a mix of these. I remember the humiliation of comparing myself to high-school friends for whom math “came easy.” A 25-year-old woman I know liked high-school 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.”

photo of Cora Barbara Hennel
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 25-year-old 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 12th-graders 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. fourth-graders were above the international scoring average in math. One fourth-grader I know says math is his favorite because “I like learning new ways to do it.” He especially likes doing “times with two-digit 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 fourth-grader’s joy in doing two-digit times to the lowest rungs of 12th-graders 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 math-anxious 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.

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