Why is it acceptable in this country to say, "I'm bad at math"? Do you know many people who would admit to being semi-literate? For Jonathan Wai at Duke, the question is central to school reform. "The first step we need to take as a society," he writes, "is to make it socially unacceptable to be bad at math just like it's socially unacceptable to be bad at reading." (It's only fair to note that we don't exactly knock it out of the park on reading, either--but Wai still has a point.)
Wai's remarks remind me of a little meditation we posted about a year and a half ago. It's worth re-posting here:
Imagine you're at a nice restaurant with some friends. Not long after the waiter hands out the menus, your neighbor gives his menu to you. "Could you read this to me?" he asks. "I can’t read very well."
You would probably be shocked if your friend were older than, say, ten. People aren't in the habit of admitting illiteracy. So why is it any less shocking when, at the end of the meal, so many of the diners fall all over themselves to say they're "too bad at math" to figure out the tip? (We've all seen it happen.)
The fact is that our society is a whole lot more accepting of mathematical illiteracy than it is of the other kind. In a recent Change the Equation poll, three in ten Americans said they were bad at math. Among 18 to 24 year olds, that ratio rose to almost four in ten. More than half of Americans aged 18 to 34 admitted that they often say they can’t do math. Nearly a third said they would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem. That's a big problem for our country.
It's a problem Change the Equation hopes to confront head on. A truly literate nation must do more than just read. We must compute, investigate and innovate. We should be curious about how things work, driven to understand the causes of our biggest challenges, and inspired by the promise of science and technology to address those challenges. Our future depends on it.
So many of our most daunting problems are at base science problems, technology problems, engineering problems and--yes--math problems. We face threats to national security, threats to the natural world, and daunting economic challenges. We face stiff international competition for good jobs that demand a background in science, technology, education and math (STEM). And in our daily lives we face ever tougher choices about our health care, our finances, our mortgages, even whom to vote for. It just won't do to say we're bad at math or science, or that we don't understand technology.
We have science, technology, engineering and math to thank for much of the prosperity we've enjoyed for the past half century or more. And these fields can fuel our prosperity and security through the rest of this century.
But first we have to excite our young people about STEM, fire their imaginations with all they could accomplish if they have a strong foundation in the STEM fields. Many of Change the Equation's corporate members are at the cutting edge of revolutionary, transformative work in science, technology, engineering and math. Many have made it their goal to show U.S. students just how vital, relevant, fascinating, and life-changing this work can be.
Young people should know that, if they’re bad at math, then they're missing out.
The stakes are very high. Not long before he died in 1996, Carl Sagan offered a pessimistic view of where our nation stands in science and technology. "We've arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology," he said. "We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster."
So rather than proclaiming our ignorance of the world we live in, it’s time to embrace and master the tools that will help all Americans understand and improve that world.