Growing Up Stupid

This study, about how Americans discourage the highest level of math genius, is far more interesting than all the ink we waste on the differences between boys’ and girls’ math skills. To me, this is the great American tradition of anti-intellectualism at its worst. My guess, of course, is that the lower you go on the socio-economic scale, the more pervasive these ideas are.

I had friends stomp on my report cards. Me and other smart working class kids weren’t exactly encouraged. I feel very lucky that my emotional needs to be smart outweighed all the discouraging influences; as with other kids from big families, being smart got me attention from my teachers, attention that was a little lacking at home. Because otherwise, being good at math came with major social stigma, and most of the young women I’ve met at colleges seem to have developed a reflexive “fuck you, I can do math” kind of attitude that keeps them safe.

That they should need it is the sore point. We celebrate athletic prowess, the people who make the top 1%, but not in intellectual arenas. Oh, this country. Maybe having an actual smart guy for president will change that & start to filter down, & kids might want to grow up to be something other than an NBA star.

De-gendering this stuff really points up actual real problems that need to be dealt with.

(h/t to Lena for sending me the article)

Helen Boyd

is the author of My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married.


  1. I so totally agree with this. My kid’s school was very sports centered and the academics suffered because of it. So many parents see the high salaries that a few athletes get and think their kid can get that, too, or at least an athletic scholarship to college. What they don’t realize is that there are only about 3,000 professional athletes in the world who can live on an athlete’s salary – the rest are either amateur or get paid so little that they need a second job.

    And as for a college scholarship, the world is filled with kids who got these scholarships but because they didn’t have the necessary preparation they either failed out of school or got a degree that is worthless because the college alumni made sure there were bogus courses for them to take. Alabama had a scandal a while back when it came out that they had freshmen teaching some courses for athletes.

    (You hit a hot button with me, Helen – thanks.)

  2. “But if elementary teachers consider themselves inherently “bad” at math, as I guarantee you many (if not most) of them do, they cannot possibly make their students understand that no one is just born bad at math.”


    “[…]Those at my campus planning to teach high school math – and thus who are essentially getting a content degree in mathematics with a few education courses – are known to complain, “why should I have to take this high-level math course when I will never teach this material?” The utter lack of interest in their major subject is astounding. Why are they math majors then? Because with such a shortage of math teachers, they are certain to get a job. And with teachers relatively uninterested in the subject they are teaching, the cycle of poor preparation continues.”

    This from a math fan & musician over at the ‘bioblog’ post, “We won’t fix math education without fixing math stigma”. The author goes on to write about the sad state of American math textbooks as well, motivated by profit rather than education.

    Wonderful as that post is, it is a description of the problem, not an analysis of the cause.

    One possible breadcrumb trail to the cause of the decline of mathematical proficiency in America:

    -Math is the basis for the scientific disciplines.

    -Biology and Physics can be taken as a form of cosmology, or at least the basic cornerstones of one.

    -Weakening those cornerstones in the American public (to the point where critical thinking itself is rarely seen as a good thing) can benefit other cosmologies.

    -In the mid-1900’s, one particular cosmology began to gain a much stronger foothold in American politics, especially once we were faced with the “godless communists’.

    -However, during the Cold War, even those most theologically opposed to communism realized that we needed math proficiency to win the battle for political superiority and therefore mindshare.

    -The Cold War is no longer a factor.

    -The addiction to mindshare remains.

    Religion-based hatred and discrimination are no longer subtle or even caged. In fact, they are now played up in an attempt to “unify” and manipulate large numbers of people, dollars…and votes.

    So, really the question becomes one of, “if this breadcrumb trail is correct, how do we follow it back to a solution”…

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